…The revolutionary process by which all books, old and new, in all languages, will soon be available digitally, at practically no cost for storage and delivery, to a radically decentralized world-wide market at the click of a mouse is irreversible.
…The technologically obsolete system, in which physical inventory is stored in publishers’ warehouses and trucked to fixed retail locations, will sooner or later be replaced by the more efficient digital alternative.
…Publishers, unable to support ...residual costs by physical book sales alone, might eventually submit to the digital imperative and market their books directly to the web to be read on digital screens or printed on demand one copy at a time at diverse locations. Though Amazon’s strategy, if successful, might force publishers to shrink or even abandon their old infrastructure, demand for physical books, printed and bound, will not disappear. Publishers might thus find it necessary to subcontract their physical inventory to specialized distributors.
Independent editorial start-ups posting their books on appropriate web sites have already begun to emerge and more will follow. The cost of entry will be slight. The essential capital will be editorial talent and energy, as it had been in the glory days before conglomeration when editors were themselves de facto publishers, publicists, and marketers. Many start-ups will fail. Some will not. Specificity, reflecting the structure of the web, will matter: a guide to the cultivation of daffodils will more likely succeed than a more diffuse gardening title.
Amazon may also attempt to reduce or eliminate its own inventory expenses by printing orders for backlist titles on demand on its own presses. Traditional publishers have resisted this proposal and Amazon has responded by threatening not to stock slower-selling backlist titles.
… The Justice Department has sued Apple and the publishers not because the agency model is illegal—it is not—but because Apple and the publishers may illegally have conspired to adopt the agency model to restrain Amazon from creating a monopoly by determining its own pricing.
. . . This is more than a conflict between Amazon and publishers. It is a vivid expression of how the logic of a radical new and more efficient technology impels institutional change.
Few technological victories are ever complete, and in the case of books this will be especially true. Bookstores will not disappear but will exploit digital technologies to increase their virtual and physical inventories, and perhaps become publishers themselves. So will libraries, whose vast and arcane holdings will soon be available to everyone everywhere.
Today’s publishers, still entangled in the dying Gutenberg age, will, one hopes, spin off their talented editors as semi-autonomous units and gradually disencumber themselves of their obsolete infrastructure. Barring a nuclear disaster, life will go on as it always has: past, present, and future all at once.