Paper’s First Mass Extinction

The digital age is upon us, it’s everywhere we look today. Literally, no industry is safe when doctors can now print 3-D parts for a heart valve repair minutes later. What possible chance do printed books have by the year 2025? Slim to none, sorry to say.

By then, publishers will only print Limited Edition books that authors and illustrators will sign and that collectors and fans will treat like trophies. Books will only be purchased – and thus printed – for their beauty or their collector appeal by 2025. Attractive, leather bindings with inlaid gold designs touting popular titles will command hundreds of dollars, but the “trade editions” will all be ninety-nine cent digital versions.

Text books – all learning material for that matter – will fall like dinosaurs during the first mass extinction of pulp. These books will die out because of their sheer weight alone, but so, too, will all sci-fi, suspense, mystery and romance stories. Novels will lose out because they hold no advantage on paper. They are more expensive and take longer for everyone involved, from author to publisher to seller to readers. In the end, economics rule. Without some other inherent value, there will be no reason to keep a novel once you’re done reading it. If that’s the case and e-books remain cheaper, then print is dead. Long live E!

Some genres should survive until 2025. Children’s books will still be in print because they are illustrated, but their days are numbered, too. Biographies with their childhood photographs, documents, maps, and other such supporting evidence have a home on the future bookshelf for those very reasons, at least for a while longer. Religious material will continue in print because you take this Book with you to Church to read along with the faithful. Even so, at some point, churches, too, will be distributing prayers, sermons and missals on e-readers left in the pews.

Cookbooks and other reference material – the kinds of books that people dog-ear and write in the margins of – will continue to be printed because we treat them like tools while working on related projects. It’s hard to see other formats surviving, though. How are you going to convince today’s youth to put down their iPhones and pick up something printed on paper?

The year 2025 is only a decade away. For the first mass extinction of paper to come true by then, all these dire predictions will need to travel at the speed of light.


A decade from now, authors, Amazon, and the publishers who are sure to follow, will be too busy translating their e-novels into other languages without making embarrassing mistakes. That will be everyone’s main concern. The war over “cover price” will be long over. Free market enterprise will set the price. It always does in the end.

I think third world countries will be the new marketing frontier ten years from now, not just for books but for e-everything. Authors and publishers could thrive with the Polaroid Theory of Marketing in those countries by providing them with cheap e-readers and free internet.

Dr. Edwin Land’s marketing strategy in the 1960s was to effectively “give away the camera to sell the film.” This was akin to financial suicide in an industry where cameras cost hundreds of dollars and the photographic film costs pennies to turn into pictures. But Land had a theory, which was this: people will pay dearly for instant gratification.

Land priced one version, the Polaroid Swinger,  under $20.00. Cameras were not household items in the 1960s until Land’s affordable entry pricing made them popular. But, where 35mm film was cheap – $4.00 to develop a roll of 36 photos – it had to be mailed to a company to be turned into pictures. It took about a week to process, and sometimes you got someone else’s pictures back instead of your own. That could get embarrassing. Polaroid sold ten pictures for $7.00, but you held your Polaroid picture in your hand one minute later, while the moment was still fresh. It was our first taste of instant gratification, and we showed great marketers like Edwin Land, Bill Gates and Steven Jobs just how much more we were willing to pay for it.

Create a $20.00 e-reader today and the Polaroid Theory guarantees that everyone of age in Africa, Asia and the poorer parts of the Americas will have access to all kinds of books. With today’s technology, all it requires is a few drones parked in the sky to gain access to millions – billions – of potential e-book buyers. This means instant global gratification for e-books and global extinction for print. A $20.00 e-reader could conquer the world with ten books for seven bucks instead of ten pictures. Everyone from author to publisher makes more money with the Polaroid Theory because millions of more copies are sold. The costs to create more copies spiral down with the economy-of-scale, and if the novel never catches on, the cost of failure is survivable.

Think bigger than that. It is possible bilingual e-books could give rise to English as Earth’s common language by 2025. It almost is now. Think of what that means to all fiction authors, regardless their native tongue.

Printed matter’s second life is destined to become firewood at some point during in the next decade. Even something as sought after today as a first edition of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, I’m sorry to say. As an antiquarian dealer, I worry about this a lot. I’ve stopped investing in modern classics produced after 1980.

Tomorrow’s bookshelf is today’s trophy cabinet. By 2025, we’ll keep our treasured tomes locked behind glass and out of direct sunlight. When someone asks if they can take one out, we’ll smile and say, “I’ve got that book on my iPad, too, if you’d like to read it.”

Next Month: Back to the topic of writing. If the future of fiction novels is strictly digital, how will that affect the way authors pace their stories? Are we headed for the 140-character novel? Will an author need to work with an illustrator to have any chance of success? Is writing a novel morphing from solitude to team project? And, if so, then whose e-voice is this, anyway? Stop by next month and explore these thoughts with me.

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