Picking back up where I left off a month ago on my predictions, today I'm going to talk about what books might look like five years, ten years, a hundred years out.
E-book growth has recently leveled off and print books are showing resilience, for now. Still, print books do face one major obstacle, which is the continued struggle of brick and mortar bookstores. Best sellers will continue to appear in big box stores like Walmart and Target, and romance and mystery novels can still be found in grocery stores and bookstores. But less popular genres, and books without proven track records, are going to struggle to find shelf space in print.
E-books will never replace print books, but e-books will become the launching platform for most new authors. Publisher's will likely grow conservative as shelf space becomes more precious, and rather than taking a gamble on a complete unknown, they'll be looking for indy authors who've built a fan base online to move into the mainstream.
The good news is that indy authors have tools available to them that big publisher's lack. While I originally published Bitterwood through a mainstream publisher, I retained the e-book rights, and have been managing them myself. Sales were pretty good for a while, then okay, then terrible. When sales of Bitterwood fell into single digits at Amazon, I figured, oh well, I guess I might as well give it away. So, I set the price to free, and in a one month period gave away almost 45,000 copies of the e-book. This has greatly revived the sales of the other books in the series, so that in one month I've sold more copies than I had for all the previous year. Mainstream publishers, in my experience, are reluctant to chase pricing to the bottom. Once you get to free, where's the profit? But for me, the boost in readership and reviews that comes from giving away my work leads to greater sales down the line.
Of course, I know I'm not the only author discovering that there's a vast pool of readers eager to read free books. Over the next few years, I think you'll see tremendous downward pressure on the price of ebooks, especially the first books in series. You see it already in music--Amazon Prime now lets me download thousands of albums for free (or, rather, for a one time annual fee.) I'm discovering new artists I hadn't tried before who I'm now willing to pay money for. Authors will soon have a similar mix of free and paid catalogs.
Which brings me to a prediction: Within five years, you'll start seeing in-text purchases available in books. You'll be reading a free murder mystery, get involved with a character who is obviously lying, and at the end of the chapter there will be a link saying, "Want to find out what Jack was really up to when he told his wife he was working late? Read his story for only 25 cents!" Just as gamers are willing to shell out micro payments for extra lives, I predict readers will be willing to pay small amounts to get bonus material, especially on popular series.
And publishers will know with great detail the material you want to read. Many smartphones and tablets already have sensors that can detect a viewers eye movements. Amazon already knows which sections of Kindle books readers zip through, and where they get bogged down, or abandon a book altogether. Soon, e-readers tracking readers eyes will be able to report what most engages readers, and what loses their attention. Eventually, I can foresee books that rewrite themselves automatically to match the tastes of the reader. Suppose you're reading a book on quantum mechanics written for a general audience. The book sees that you're skimming over all the passages with a lot of math or highly technical terms. So, the book suppresses the math and the specialized language and explains things in more general terms. Conversely, it might sense you're bored, and know from your reading history you prefer denser, difficult prose. Moving forward, it could present you with the most advanced version of the book in it's data base.
In the future, maybe as little as ten years out, readers will read books, and the books will read them back.
But what about the more distant future? Will it still be necessary to read? Or, if I want to know the text of Beowulf, will I just be able to place a mental request to a virtual library and have the book instantly streamed into my brain? I'll be able to remember every word of the manuscript without ever having my eyes gaze upon a single line of text, either on paper or on screen. But will instant delivery of knowledge equate to learning the material, or knowing it? Or will we just be recording media, able to recite back any bit of trivia we've absorbed without actually comprehending its deeper meaning?
It's almost scary to think about. But, it was probably scary for the monks copying manuscripts with quills the first time they saw a printed book. The printed word has been quick to adapt new technologies. I can't imagine that the paper book is mankind's final, best technology for storing and spreading stories.