Pining for Paper

My Dad and I got into an interesting debate while nursing cold beverages on the deck of his place in Canada, ¬†during the annual “cram everyone into one house and see how long we last” multi-family retreat. We always have some good discussions during these gatherings. But my Dad and I aren’t that often on such clearly opposite sides of an issue. It started with some comment of mine about the declining importance of penmanship (shouldn’t that be penpersonship now? Or perhaps pencraft.) My Dad is in his 70’s and can’t imagine a world in which people don’t write notes, lists, invitations, and memos by hand. I’m about to turn 50, and can.

Ultimately, of course, my Dad is right: it will be a long, long time before humans fully forget the skill of making physical characters with a writing tool on some surface. But long before that happens penmanship will have been relegated to a ceremonial role, and then something of purely antiquarian interest. What of the stuff we write on? An article in the NYT (registration may be required) today about the bookselling giant Barnes & Noble putting itself on the block notes the rapid growth of ebooks, and the how the death of paper is poised over the publishing industry like a virtual wrecking ball. My analogy is imperfect because it implies sudden destruction, whereas this wrecking ball has been slowly swinging back and forth for a few years now.

I used to spend maybe $200 to $500 a year on programming books. I don’t buy any programming books these days, and haven’t for close to five years. Everything I need to know is online. I still do buy fiction, because I don’t yet have a reader. My wife, who does have a reader (a Nook), buys ebooks more or less exclusively at this point. I also buy non-fiction, but much less than in the past. In recent research for a historical novel I purchased four or five technical history texts, but I collected at least as much or more information online. I visit the library for paper books too, and wonder what will happen to Ben Franklin’s idea over the next twenty years? Who will lead us through the stacks when there are no stacks?

As a writer who still has hopes of being published when he grows up, I am not at all disinterested in these developments, and whether they are good for writers. In balance I think they will be. What the publishing business represented was distribution. If the average author made a couple of bucks per book they were doing pretty well. People are already finding success publishing their own work, promoting it online, and delivering it electronically. With publishers focused on blockbuster novels and movie-star authors this change may in fact stir up the market, and let forth a lot of great material that would otherwise have mouldered on a hard drive.

However things turn out for writers, these changes will be cataclysmic for companies like Barnes & Noble, with thousands of stores and the massive bottom line associated with brick and mortar retailing. Companies that make paper, print books, bind books, sell books, and play other roles in the aging paper pipeline will be hit hard. Small companies may find new niches and prosper, but utterly disruptive change is nearly impossible for large companies to deal with. Just try to get a meeting room full of senior executives or board members to jettison an existing business model and pour resources into a risky new one. Netflix wins, not Blockbuster.