There now seems to be a consensus that, despite the growing popularity of e-books, the printed book as we know it will continue to be available for ever and ever. I don’t deny that there are reasons to prefer ink-on-paper, and I am sure that books will indeed be printed in the future.

But what I can’t accept is the casual assumption that this means that those among us who prefer printed books will be able to carry on just as before. We won’t. Printed books will become luxury items, and will return to costing a fortune, just as they did before Gutenberg’s revolution started the process of turning them into mass objects. Today’s book manufacturing industry has become an amazingly efficient operation. This has been done by investment in equipment and by specialization. When I started in publishing you tended to chose your printer based on the availability of a particular typeface there — in letterpress days typesetting and printing lived together. Binding was often done elsewhere. The trim size you decided on would only be affected to a rather limited degree by the presses owned by the printer. You’d make it work, and buy paper to fit. Over the years printers, having got rid of the typesetting bit, have specialized in particular strands of book work: some are efficient for 7″ x 10″ books, others for 6-1/8″ x 9-1/4″. Gradually their equipment, ever faster and slicker, comes to mandate that they can only do this or that size of book (or range of sizes). They compete with other printers on price, a consequence of efficiency, and make good money only when the plant is full and humming, fully utilizing their fiendishly expensive machines. To take advantage of the attractive pricing publishers have reduced the variety of sizes of books they publish — nowadays books tend mostly to be 3 or 4 sizes: we just can’t “afford” to print an odd sized volume. Books are historically cheap to make.

As e-books capture part of the market for books, the number of print books will become smaller and smaller. You can’t expect a big book manufacturer to wait around for the 5 or 6 reprints you do this quarter — they need volume to amortize their immense equipment investment. Without volume, many book manufacturing plants will close. Now of course, as stipulated, there will always be demand for printed books. However without the big printers who keep prices down by printing millions of volumes, the print business will become smaller, and being smaller, more expensive. This could lead to a printing renaissance — letterpress equipment (if you can find any) is excellent for short runs — and if the book has to be expensive, you can see wanting to make it beautiful too. The cynic in me however keeps whispering that the future will be e-books and POD (print-on-demand).