Tim O'Reilly, who knows a bit about publishing books, responded to a recent thought piece, What Will Happen to Books?, by Kevin Kelly about the future of the publishing business which ran in the New York Times. Verdict? Publishers don't need to be afraid... yet. I'm inclined to agree but I think the warning signs are certainly there for publishers that their distribution model, like the one for music, movies, and other media, is inexorably changing.
There's a visceral pleasure in a printed book that won't go away soon, not to mention the attendant benefits of a medium that requires no electricity and provide high resolution, high density information in an inexpensive and easily shared package. There are still legions of people who have never read anything longer than this blog post on a screen and like it that way just fine, thank you very much.
But increasingly content is moving to the screen and to the net. O'Reilly's Safari service is a good example. Other publishers of "dead trees", particularly in the geek space now include an electronic copy of the tome on a CD bound into the book itself. Two examples of this hybrid or crossover publishing approach that have proven their value to me personally are Microsoft Press who includes an electronic copy of their Manual of Style with the atoms, and Que who regularly provides PDF versions of their impossibly heavy, phone book-sized volumes about operating systems and applications.
I find the electronic versions far more useful on a day-to-day basis but am very happy to have both formats at my disposal.
The education world is where the sea change will take place in my opinion. Changing the habits acquired over a lifetime is exceedingly difficult. Building new habits in younger, more flexible brains is easier by far. As more and more curriculum material moves into electronic form and anywhere, anytime learning continues to proliferate, the expectations of consumers will change.
Sure, there's been an explosion of content enabled by all manners of cost-approaching-zero technologies like blogs, wikis, photo and video sharing services, and the steady adoption of the Portable Document Format (PDF) as a standard container for rich media. The implications for XML are just beginning to be appreciated by folks outside the druidic inner circles of TLA-spouting geekdom. Change is inevitable.
It will happen slowly but it will happen. And any publisher whose response to this inevitability is to go into denial, bury their head in the sand, and hope it's just a fad will be swept away. Count on it.
Update: Ever the contrarian, Jeff Jarvis writes that "The book is dead. Long live the book." Great stuff as usual.