The publishing industry and the music industry make an uneasy comparison but in a way it would be easy to draw the conclusion that print books will eventually be replaced by ebooks, in much the same way that downloads are killing off CDs. That, however, would be the wrong conclusion. Printed books have been around too long to simply be wiped off the face of the earth. The majority of the reading public aren’t interested in ebooks, and that’s not going to change any time soon. CDs will eventually go the same way as the cassette tape, but vinyl will be around forever. It may have been wounded in battle, but it’s too strong to kill.
As far as I can see it, digital publishing is in the process of changing the publishing industry in two ways: firstly, and most obviously, books are being made available in more than one format; and secondly the use of print-on-demand technology is changing the way books are produced. Using the internet as a platform for selling books that can be ordered online, then printed and delivered to the customer seems a better option for small presses than printing hundreds or thousands of copies in advance of any sales – especially when it’s so difficult getting your books distributed and sold in shops. Of course, mainstream publishers don’t have that particular problem, and it’s not clear whether or not the larger publishing houses will embrace print-on-demand technology in the same way that the small presses are doing.
If they do, it could mean bad news for bookshops. Or alternatively it could mean great news for bookshops. It would be perfectly possible to introduce a system where a customer walks into a bookshop, names the book they want, and it’s printed and bound for them then and there. Whether this kind of technology will take off or not is a different matter.
Whatever happens, one thing is for certain: in ten years time, the publishing industry will have changed massively. I’d like to think that as a result of these changes, small press publishers will be a lot stronger than before.