This column was first published in the June edition of AGI (the largest magazine for the printers in Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland). It can be found in Swedish over at bokensframtid.se

It’s now 555 years since Johannes Gutenberg printed his first Bible in German Mainz, an event which may be seen as the beginning of the book’s broad growth and increased penetration. Since then, the book has been a unique and unthreatened product. A symbol of everything that modern society is based on; education and knowledge. A democratic symbol. A sales pitch has never been needed and the printed book as a product has never been questioned.

Until today.

Now the mass digitisation is knocking on the door. And it affects the book as a product, the publishers, the printers, the readers and everyone who in any way is involved in the process of how and why a book is made. Exactly how and in what way the impact will be shown is of course a bit difficult to say, but one thing is for sure – things will change. Fundamentally. And for every one.

It’s been said that everything that can be digitalised will be digitalised, and the book industry is now facing this. The Newspapers and the music and film industries have all already been forced to change. Not because they don’t want things to be as they’ve always been - but because they will run out of business if they don’t. The old product is simply not good enough any more.

And the printed book is next.

The digital tsunami will hit bigger, faster and stronger than the industry probably can imagine, or at least than they are prepared to.
And this will of course affect the printing industry. The book is, after all, the oldest and the most royal product in the graphic industry’s product range.

Recent events clearly show where we are going:

  • Google has digitalised (scanned) more than 7 million books from libraries at Harvard, Stanford, Oxford and The New York Public Library. And the scanners continues to run day and night…
  • The libraries and other collections of information will be digitised and soon be easily accessible.
  • Loans of e-books in academic libraries in particular are on it’s way to pass the amount of loans of paper books. [Updated: It has now happen in Sweden, see Kungliga Bibliotekets web for more info (in Swedish).]
  • The development of the e-book reader has reached a level where users accept it, and a global commercial breakthrough approaches. (Today over one million e-book readers has been sold in the U.S., which is one of the first markets.)
  • E-commerce giant Amazon has over 250 000 books available through its e-reader Kindle. The user connects to the Amazon Kindle store and in less than a minute, the ebook has been ordered, paid and downloaded. (The number of available books is constantly growing and now Amazon says that up to 10% of their book sales are digital books.)
  • Newspaper and magazine archives are being digitalised and easily accessed for readers.

So, as if there was a doubt, the digital book world is waiting around the corner. “When?”, “how soon?”, “how big?” are still questions that are being discussed in Sweden and Europe today -  and we can of course continue to discuss that if we want to - but in the meantime it happens. Soon your neighbour will be sitting next to yo on the beach with an electronic book reader with access to almost all the books in world ever published. And he will look at you and smile - nostalgically - about all the paper books you have carried with you on your vacation.

Future? Well, think of this; less than 10 years ago digital music was still very underground - today the mp3 files is mainstream and spread all over the world - over 200 million iPods have been sold and the physical CDs are being marginalised.

Is the same thing happening to the paper book? Most certain.

So, how should the publishing and printing industries react? They must of course do what the music biz never did. Realise that this will happen - no matter if they welcome it or not -  and then take the driver’s seat. Invent, act, listen. Talk to users/readers, and be a port of the development of the new book models rather than running away from them. Help new players, new investors, new business. Because they will not wait for you. Google, Amazon and other digital players don’t care about you, and not the consumers either. They just want to read the way they want - just like the music fan wants to listen to the music how, when and where ever they want.

Publishers and printers need to act now to stay relevant, they need to team up with both traditional and new distributors, and create solutions that the users/readers want. They need to embrace the new situation. Search for partnerships to create exciting solutions in which the e-book and paper book can be a complement to each other. And if you play your cards right, promote the paper’s benefits wisely, maybe the readers will find value in the printed page even after the digital tsunami.

But the printing industry - is there still a future? Well, yes. But they need start to think a bit different. Most importantly, they need the courage to test new things, dare to find new ways of work and sell their unique product - and not just sit passively and observe books reject the printing presses.
With the right context, framework and accessibility, the printed book will probably always be able to attract, educate and inspire people - even 555 years from now.

But it will be significantly more difficult to motivate readers why.

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