It’s the End of the Book As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)

Imagine you’re about to open a candy store. You’ll want your shelves to be overflowing with enticing treats so you’ll need to invest in some inventory. But candy has a finite shelf life so if you end up stocking too much inventory, you can lose a lot of money on unsold candy. Any business that sells physical goods faces this dilemma: you want enough inventory to match your customers’ demand – any more and you pay the cost of excess inventory; any less and you lose sales opportunities.

A physical bookstore faces the same dilemma. Although they don’t spoil the way candy does, books also have a shelf life because authors, subjects and genres ebb and flow with the tides of fashion and culture. Now think about a digital bookstore. Because digital media is so easy to copy, the inventory cost to sell one copy of an ebook is essentially the same as the inventory cost to sell a billion copies. Any media that can be stored and copied digitally has a huge economic advantage over the corresponding analog incarnation.

That, in a nutshell, is why printed books and traditional bookstores are not long for this world. It’s already started happening. Earlier this year, announced that, for the first time ever, they had sold more electronic books than their paper counterparts. Borders, the venerable chain of book superstores, declared bankruptcy this year.

I will miss the look and the feel of paper books and the excitement of browsing shelves full of mystery and drama and surprise. But at the same time, I look forward to a world where books are easier to find and transport, cheaper to buy, more fun to read, and more environmentally responsible.

Tomorrow I’m going on a trip for work, where I’ll need access to numerous programming books and related references. Instead of carrying this on the plane:

I’ll be carrying this:

Doesn’t that make more sense?

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