In Nate Silver’s recent best selling book, The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail — but Some Don’t, the Great Predictor begins with a history lesson.He begins with a brief history of what he considers the information age. The lesson does not begin with the personal computer or the internet, but with perhaps the first info-tech invention:
The pursuit of knowledge seemed inherently futile, if not altogether vain. If today we feel a sense of impermanence because things are changing so rapidly, impermanence was a far more literal for the generations before us. There was “nothing new under the sun,” as the beautiful Bible verses in Ecclesiastes put it — not so much because everything had been discovered but because everything would be forgotten.
The printing press changed that, and did so permanently and profoundly. Almost overnight, the cost of producing a book decreased by about three hundred times, so a book that might have cost $20,000 in today’s dollars instead cost $70… The number of books being produced grew exponentially, increasing by about thirty times in the first century after the printing press was invented.
In the recent MFA residency period, a good portion of breath went to the discussing of and pondering about publishing and its future. Some of the guest lecturers of previous residency periods suggested the publishing industry is dying, that Amazon, with its selling books at a loss and pricing out all local book sellers, was mere years away from soldering shut the vault of diversity that had been the publishing industry. Others bemoaned the written word would become purely digital, that no physical scrap would survive.
Allow me to posit an alternative. Allow me to suggest we learn from the ebbing past, we ask History what becomes of outdated technology. Because History says progress does not mean deletion.
Like Silver, I am a statistician and an economist. As such, I love the study of industries and technology through history. And one of the curiosities I have encountered with greater frequency of late is the human inability to predict innovation roadblocks. Technological improvements occur in leaps, not in slopes. When we look at a world rapidly changing around us, it is hard to imagine a future where old technologies — printed books, in this case — will last beyond the current generation, but such is the case.
A recent series of articles from The Economist help illustrate this geometric, rather than exponential, technology growth:
In 1900 kitchens in even the poshest of households were primitive things. Perishables were kept cool in ice boxes, fed by blocks of ice delivered on horse-drawn wagons. Most households lacked electric lighting and running water. Fast forward to 1970 and middle-class kitchens in America and Europe feature gas and electric hobs and ovens, fridges, food processors, microwaves and dishwashers. Move forward another 40 years, though, and things scarcely change. The gizmos are more numerous and digital displays ubiquitous, but cooking is done much as it was by grandma.
My grandfather, born in 1901, got around the world the same way Alexander the Great did: by horse. And so, when he was in his 40s and 50s, and the world had gone from horse-and-buggy to this:
It was reasonable for my grandfather’s generation to expect flying cars. In the span of just half his life, the world transformed from 10 mph to 100 mph. Growth appeared exponential. Horses and carriages, which were slower, more costly, and altogether less efficient, would be a thing of the past.
So why is it that America, the most car’d country on earth, also has the most horses and why does every major US city have horses and carriages downtown? And why is it that a young generation, one that for all practical purposes grew up in a post-vinyl-record age, has led a resurgence in yet another obsolete technology? How is it, with electricity providing cheap, effective heat and light, that the candle industry brings in almost $2 billion annually?
All of these supposedly obsolete technologies remained pertinent because they had facets unique unto themselves. They became niche industries or special products. They did not disappear. Granted, there are few stores that sell only candles, only carriages, or only vinyls. They exist, but not in the numbers they once did. The same will happen with books.
The cheapest books made with the cheapest bindings, they may fade away. Why? There is a new cheap: digital. But hard covers? They will not only continue to exist, but they will thrive. And here’s why:
Have you ever asked an author to sign a digital book? The Tampa MFA program brings in a tidal wave of famous and impressive authors each residency, and — as a prolific purchaser of digital goods — I find myself invariably buying the physical stuff when these authors are around. I want my copy of Peter Meinke poetry signed and displayed prominently in my house.
If I could, I would pay $50 or more for a fancy, hand-bound and gilded copy of a John Hodgman book or a copy of A Moment in the Sun, one of my favorite novels. I want these books to collect, to display. I also want their digital counterparts. I want versions I can search and bookmark without depreciating the book’s value.
There always existed a dichotomy in the world of books: The cheap and the expensive. What digital books have done is spread the gap. Cheap is now cheaper — and should become even more so. Meanwhile, expensive has been stagnant. Publishers need to recognize the changing market. In just the same way as how young adults are buying digital albums (for practical purposes) and vinyl albums (for collector and aesthetic purposes), so too will readers opt for the digital over the paperback and the gilded, hand-crafted hardback over the boring dust-jacketed hardback.
Does this mean the death of paperbacks? Probably not. Airports will always remain stocked with the middle-priced form of publishing. And those who fidget at the sight of technology will always prefer the paperback (and this may open a new world of print-on-demand sales via publisher websites).
But do not be surprised if the bookstores that survive are the ones that (a) sell more than just books and/or (b) sell expensive, collector-style books and/or (c) have geocoding arrangements with Amazon or Barnes & Noble for digital books purchased within their store. Bookstores can survive, but like the candle maker, they will need to find their new niche.
The University of Tampa Press opens its doors every residency period to the MFA students and offers inquiring minds a look into the old ways of publishing — the ways wherein hands laid out words and then ink pressed into paper, wherein book covers were likewise hand-crafted and illustrations squeezed onto pages. At one time, this was the cheapest method of printing books. As technology progressed and silicon boards replaced metal gears and computer-guided ink-jets replaced hand-set letters, these methods became bits of history.
Now, they may be the future.