Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Everything that's fit to print

From somewhere in the nineties, possibly around the time that certain commercial mega-channels began to extinguish independent booksellers, I have a vague recollection of a prognostication regarding book publishing and retail distribution. As the number of books in print continued to grow, and readers continued to explore formats that didn't necessarily include paper, technology would allow book vendors to make books available on demand in a variety of formats, rather than pre-stocking them.

The scenario: customer walks into bookstore, seeking Title. Maybe Title is by a small publisher. Maybe it's old. Maybe it's a strong seller and is sold out at that location. But it's not there. Customer inquires of clerk, who offers to print the book on the spot. Clerk retrieves text of Title from database, and on-site printer rapidly prints and binds a new copy of Title, which is promptly sold to customer.

Or maybe customer opts to receive book in a digital format. Clerk accesses database, and on-site burner renders text of Title on disc or portable memory device, which is promptly sold to customer. (Books on tape - or CD - can be executed in a similar manner, provided the audio has been prerecorded, and who knows, soon it might not even have to be prerecorded...)

It's a compelling idea for a handful of reasons. Publishers take on a significantly lower risk with a new work. It's far easier for them to keep their entire catalogue 'in print', that is, available to the public. Bookstores may opt to pre-stock books for a variety of reasons, but they can make virtually any book available on the spot. No one has to be talked into 'special ordering' and waiting, so fewer sales are lost. In situations where retail space is a premium, the only items that must be pre-stocked are those with higher printing values, e.g. photography and coffee table books, collectors' imprints. Publishing is unshackled from paper, giving it accessibility through technology that hasn't made much progress since, well, Gutenberg.

Okay, so it hasn't turned out that way, yet. But, why not? Is the paper lobby that strong?

This being a music blog, you can guess where I'm going with this. Today I visited my local independent music store of choice. I think time goes a little more slowly in that store, considering how dense matter is in there; every square inch of space has been commandeered for merchandise, sometimes to a laughable degree. They do their best, both with the back catalogue and new releases, but even if they were ten times their size they couldn't hold everything that's available, and that wouldn't be cost effective anyway. The nice guys will try to order anything for me, but the instant gratification is lost, which surely translates to lost sales on occasion, even if it doesn't with me.

We can already purchase almost everything in mp3 format on line, if we're willing to accept lesser quality in sound and artwork. Isn't there a middle ground somewhere? How about a service that involves a database accessible by high speed internet connection, and a local high quality burner and printer? Most of this technology is already available on or with a home computer. My hunch is that this path could even lower CD prices. And it's even more feasible than the books on demand scenario above, since the raw materials to burn a CD are far less expensive and bulky than those to print a book.

My local music store could use its precious space to stock fun things like boxed sets, limited edition special releases and collectible vinyl. Of course, they could maintain stock levels of things they were certain would sell. Everything else could be reduced completely to its listing in a database. The music store wins because they can make more sales than before, and they greatly reduce their speculative investment. The record labels win because people who want their products are more likely to get them; they can minimize or even eliminate distribution channels (and their attendant mark-ups); and they also reduce their speculative investment. Customers win because it's easier and faster to get whatever they want, old or new.

Royalties? Easily tracked, and I'd say they'd be likely to go up. Right now, if I want an old album, I may have to buy it used simply because it's no longer 'in print'. If it were available through a service like this, I'd purchase it new.

Artwork? We already had this debate when the CD overtook the LP: would a smaller surface kill album art? It changed things, but it didn't kill them, and I don't think printing on demand would, either.

Copy protection? It wouldn't seem to be any greater or lesser than it is now, and again, rather than copying an out-of-print album from my friend (or copying it because it's an obscure import that would cost me fifty bucks, with shipping) I would just go purchase it.

This is a rather macro-scale idea, but by no means an unwieldy one. The recording industry hasn't exactly been visionary in their approach to new technology and new problems; I'd say it's about time for them to question assumptions that may have overstayed their welcome. Something like this could really inject new life into music retail.