When Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in the mid-1400s, he built a system - moveable type that worked, and worked very well (with incremental advances) for more than 500 years.
The system STILL works. But in this new decade, the book business is undergoing its biggest change since, well, forever.
When asked about the status of books as we enter 2010, literary agent and former publishing house CEO Larry Kirshbaum says, "We are at the crossroads in terms of this new technology."
That's because when you talk about books now, it's impossible not to talk about physical books - paper and bindings you can feel, see and smell - versus electronic books . . . downloaded documents . . . digital ink . . . a whole new world of reading.
"If you handed Gutenberg a Kindle today, what would he think?" asked Glor.
"I think he'd scratch his head," Kirshbaum laughed. "Especially the idea that - I mean, this guy sweated to get out, you know, a few Bibles. What do you mean there's a database here of a million titles? What are you talking about?"
We're talking about these thin, increasingly more elegant instruments that store libraries of information in plastic cases thinner than a pencil.
Just look at the numbers. In 2009 there were about two billion physical books sold in the United States. Sounds like a lot - but that's down nearly five percent from 2008.
In 2010, that number is expected to drop another two percent.
But e-books? Sales will go from about $150 million last year . . . to an estimated billion-dollar business by 2012, as new products from tech companies like Apple flood the market.
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Bestselling author Ken Auletta, a media watcher and columnist for The New Yorker, said the transition to electronic books happened faster than he thought it would.
"Everything happens faster," he told Glor. "There nothing that happens slowly anymore. The speed is exponential. It's just stunning.
"It took television over three decades to reach 50 percent of the American public," Auletta said. "Took electricity 70 years. It took the Internet ten years. It took Face-book five years to reach 350 million people. That's extraordinary."
Electronic books could up the ante even more, though not every author is on board, J K Rowling most prominently. The writer of the Harry Potter series refuses to sell her stories as e-books over worries of piracy - and wanting readers to experience physical books.
Still, e-books have the potential to rewrite the publishing business model. You might be surprised to learn that most books don't make publishers a penny. As in the movie business, they strike it rich with big "hits" - the bestsellers.
But now it's even tougher. With Amazon in particular serving up a wide range of e-books at less than ten dollars . . . a massive discount . . . and other mainstream retailers offering select hardcovers at less than ten bucks as well (for a loss), everyone is scrambling to understand the new normal.
"Amazon has changed the game, there's no question," said Kirshbaum. "They have really brought the consumer into the game in a way that they never were involved before."
And it's not just e-books: it's books on the Internet as well. More than 20 million of them, the stated goal of tech giant Google, still in the middle of the monumental task of scanning and posting every single book ever written.
"Are these guys as ambitious about books as they are about everything else?" Glor asked Auletta.
"Yes," he replied.
That sure sounds noble - capturing and spreading information in typically grand Google-esque terms. But the company has faced copyright lawsuits along the way.
"Google collects a tremendous amount of information," Auletta said. "And, with Google Book Search, they'll be collecting much more information. What happens to that information? Who holds it? And who can you use it? Can you sell it to advertisers? And is that a danger?"
"I'm loath to say this, as a book lover, but given Google's ambitions, does anybody really want to read 20 million books?" Glor laughed.
"No! But you like to know you have access to them," said Auletta. "And that's great."
Great for Google. Maybe not so much for small bookstores. Those dusty, quaint nooks that, yes, still do exist in cities small and large.
Harris Healy, who has owned Logos Bookstore in New York City for nearly 20 years, said, "People want to come in, feel appreciated, feel that they're doing something more than just buying something.
"They want good value. And the good value is experiential."
Ten years ago there were about 4,000 independent bookstores in the U.S. Today, there's less than HALF that.
A loss felt, for sure, though as some chapters close, others begin, largely through digital delivery. Not perfect yet, but given how easy it is to access information today, it's worth asking: Has there ever been a better time to be a reader?
"No," said Kirshbaum. "Content is still king in an odd sort of way. For 500 years, publishers have done perfectly well with the same technology, they're going to do even better with this new technology."
"Books aren't going away?" Glor asked.
"They're not going away. No, they're not. They're definitely not going away."
Visit Jeff Glor's book blog, Author Talk.
For more info:
Larry Kirshbaum, LJK Literary Management
"Googled: The End of the World As We Know It" by Ken Auletta (Penguin)
Logos Bookstore (New York, N.Y.)
Institute for Publishing Research