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A Techno-Future for Book Publishing?

March 12, 2010

Jason Epstein, in the New York Review of Books, writes this:

"The transition within the book publishing industry from physical inventory stored in a warehouse and trucked to retailers to digital files stored in cyberspace and delivered almost anywhere on earth as quickly and cheaply as e-mail is now underway and irreversible. This historic shift will radically transform worldwide book publishing, the cultures it affects and on which it depends."

Sure, computers are important to publishing, but human overreach and depletion of natural resources will have an even greater influence. People interested in the future of books need to be paying attention, or they will be trampled as people dash for the exits from the temple of industrial growth.

Digital books are individually cheap but have a very high and technically complex overhead. You have to buy something (computer, e-book reader) to process them, and hidden further behind that is a lot of infrastructure which no one pays much attention to: electric grids, access to rare earth metals, easy credit, and a market for high-tech goods, for example.  Standard book publishing also consumes resources (like paper), but nothing that was not possible well before the computer age.  

We’re at or past peak oil, there’s no real way out of the debt crisis, and the environment is cracking under the strain of unrestricted human growth. If international trade collapses — like, nobody wants our money because it’s no good — what will a computer or an e-book cost? Where are you going to get that mercury and cadmium? (In 2006, we imported mercury mostly from Russia, Peru, and Germany.) 

Here’s what I see in publishing: a lively trade in used books, and an increase in the importance of libraries. If I were young, had a lot of storage space, and an insane desire to get into the publishing business, I’d keep a sharp eye out for books that will be hot about 10 or 20 years from now. Classics and good books on useful subjects are two obvious areas. Books, even intelligently written books with nice color photographs on acid-free paper, are dirt cheap right now. In the future, publishers will be thinking twice about actually printing anything new.

In information technology in the future, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a lively trade in used computer equipment. International trade may not collapse, but it’s something that techno-enthusiasts need to keep in mind. There is an actual, physical reality ("the real world") on which both computers and publishing rests. Computers are products of a highly networked system; they depend on trust, trade, and international agreements, all of which are going to be increasingly scarce. The codex is not dead just yet.