Just a couple days ago I wrote about an article wondering if the iPad had “preemptively killed the US tablet market”. It would seem at least one person believes the answer is no, because CNet is running a brief piece by Brooke Crothers predicting that a lot of media pads are on the way, and listing some of the features they might have.

What I take from all this is that prognostication is really anybody’s guess.

And speaking of prognostication, fresh from offering his $100 tablet expertise to the makers of India’s announced $35 tablet, Nicholas Negroponte has confidently predicted the death of the paper book within five years.

People will say ‘no, no, no’ — of course you like your libraries,” Negroponte said. But he cited the report that sales of books for the Kindle recently surpassed sales of hardcover books.

Oh, well, if he says it, then it must be true.

TechCrunch’s Devin Coldewey takes a fairly lengthy look at the tendency toward making predictions of the death of the paper book that has been growing lately (is it something in the water?) and notes that printed matter does have a lot of inertia on its side, even as e-books have some other advantages. And he is not immune to making a prognostication of his own:

I say that books are going to continue to decline in circulation as e-readers get better and cheaper ($140 is still a lot), and as the smoke-filled room occupied by the big players clears a bit. I predict a flip-flop, though: when cheap e-readers become common possessions, books will cease to be inferior alternatives and start being luxury items. The quality of paperbacks and such today really is awful: pulp paper, blurry type, flimsy covers — it’ll be no mystery when Jane Six-Pack opts for a slick, light e-reader a couple models down the line. The low-quality book market being usurped by e-readers, dead-tree-based publishers will have to change their tack, and obviously economy and convenience will no longer be a feature of their product.

It seems to be fashionable to predict the death of the e-book, but I’m suddenly reminded of the segment concerning the computer Deep Thought from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and the philosphers Majikthise and Vroomfondel who make a fortune in the prognostication business based on the seven and a half million years required for its solution.

Fortunately, we won’t have to wait quite that long to know what’s going to happen to paper books.


  1. You guys are all smoking dirty socks. It is a false correlate to imagine that increasing screen delivery has anything to do with diminishing print delivery. To begin with all screen books have a print version. Even more relevant, screen delivery will compound any number of times without influence of print distribution. Annual print has increased sales consistently for the past eleven years at single digits over a huge installed base. Annual screen delivery has increased from a zero base over the same period. Last year print shot up annually to double digits in part from the new stream of print and publish on demand.

    About twenty years ago I was in the back of the room at an ALA “big heads meeting” between research library directors and publishers. One publisher projected that by 2010 only 10% of all publication would be delivered in print (and yet it is still 100%). Ross Atkinson from Cornell immediately jumped up and said that a 10% print titles growth at the rate of increase of the 90’s would project to a doubling of the size of print libraries by 2010….and they would be the real books. That prophesy, based on 10% selection, has come true

  2. “all screen books have a print version.” This is so very incorrect. Many niche books come out exclusively as ebooks and may never have a print run. For example, one of my favorite authors, J.A. Konrath, has many titles that are e-only.

  3. …er, guess i was wrong again…speaking only of monographic book titles; less than 1% are published exclusively for screen delivery and about 99% are still published in print version. This is somewhat so for annual titles or for all time titles due to format conversions across all monographs. I guess the statistic to watch is % published exclusively for screen if you are interested in outright print super-cession.

  4. I agree that Negroponte is a failed prophet. Maybe his five years really should be six. Or four. Those of us who’ve been in this business for a while have been preaching the benefits of eBooks for so long it seems like it’s already taken far longer than it needed to. I think the Dorchester announcement is huge. A major publisher abandoning mass market paperback and going directly to eBooks (with a bit of POD on the side). There will be more.

    Rob Preece

  5. I have seen so many stories get the context of Negroponte’s quote wrong. By “dead” he means it in the way we speak about technology like Zune or friendster are dead. Not that they will cease to exist rather they will so being important or dominant in the marketplace.
    Negroponte even says somethign to that effect in the next sentence to two.

  6. Just because it’s Negroponte saying it doesn’t make it wrong. And the statement isn’t about ebooks exterminating print books but about ebooks dominating the industry; defining the production processes, defining the terms of compensation, the release “windows”.
    And isn’t that happening now?

    Isn’t everything going on, from the Price-fix scheme to the debates on “orphan” works, to the fights over backlist rights and rates; isn’t it all about ebooks?

    Not only is it ongoing, I’m starting to think 5 years as the point when it becomes clear that ebooks do *dominate* publishing is actually a *conservative* estimate.

    In the whole debate there is way too much focus on buyer preferences (“there will always be people who want print books”) and not enough on raw economics.

    I think the BPHs are going to pull a 180 on us a lot sooner than most people realize.

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