Like vinyl records, sales of old-fashioned printed and bound books are making a modest but note-worthy comeback. Even the mass extinction of independent booksellers has abated somewhat (the American Booksellers Association counted 1,712 member stores in 2,227 locations in 2015, up from 1,410 in 1,660 locations five years ago) as sales of e-books has plateaued (the portion of people who read books primarily on e-readers fell to 32 percent in the first quarter of 2015, from 50 percent in 2012, a Nielsen survey showed).
What is going on?
Although it is still a moving target, it would seem that the strengths and weaknesses of electronic versions of books has had enough time to make themselves evident to customers who are perhaps beginning a modest but significant return to the printed page for some types of publishing.
Shorter written pieces — blogs, short news feeds etc. — still have overwhelming popularity through smartphones. Likewise, many people are amusing themselves (and sometimes informing themselves) through video and podcast. But the signs of life in certain areas of book publishing points not only to some limitations of digital technology but perhaps also to the psychology and behavior of readers. It also presents an interesting opportunity to transform the book printing process.
Although still too early to make conclusions, there are many who consider e readers still too cumbersome for an essentially simple task — reading a story. True, the ability to load a Kindle with tons of material and avoid throwing one’s back out carting around a few brick’s worth of books is enormously appealing. But e-readers are still clunky when it comes to bookmarking multiple spots in a book and are hopeless when it comes to presenting photos, graphics and maps. One could use a iPad or smartphone to read and these devices could present graphics a bit better than a Kindle, but the glare from the screen of these devices is still a source of irritation. Some users are finding that the very point of immersing oneself in a book is ruined by the constant chirping and distracting nudges from phones — people seem to value the ability to disconnect.
Yet for this writer, the response from traditional publishers is incredibly unlean. For example,
Publishers, seeking to capitalize on the shift, are pouring money into their print infrastructures and distribution. Hachette added 218,000 square feet to its Indiana warehouse late last year, and Simon & Schuster is expanding its New Jersey distribution facility by 200,000 square feet. Penguin Random House has invested nearly $100 million in expanding and updating its warehouses and speeding up distribution of its books. It added 365,000 square feet last year to its warehouse in Crawfordsville, Ind., more than doubling the size of the warehouse. (The New York Times, September 22, 2015.)
True, these same publishers are trying to reduce lead times to fill book orders, but they are generally failing to re-think the end-to-end process.
For example, the Espresso Book Machine by On Demand Books is the latest incarnation of remote printing of books in response to individual customer orders rather than the unlean practice of printing batches of books, sticking them in a warehouse and then shipping them to book stores (and perhaps shipping them back if they don’t sell).
The Parisian bookseller La Librairie des Puf (or just “Les Puf’) is an example of a bookstore using the Espresso device.
Is there still a place for high-volume traditional book printing? Perhaps, but the better approach is to start with the idea of printing one book, when I need it, where it need and to then work backwards to figure out how to make it so.