Predicting the future

By Joe Moore

In a recent article in THE TELEGRAPH, the founder of the famous Waterstone’s London book store, Tim Waterstone, stated that the “printed word is far from dead” and gypsey-with-crystal-ball (Small)the “so-called e-book revolution will soon go into decline.” He joked that insiders were generally “apocalyptic” about the book industry’s prospects but said he refused to believe the traditional physical book was under threat.

I tend to agree with Mr. Waterstone in as much as most bookstores I visit are packed with books and people buying them. I know it’s a simplistic measure of current trends, but when I start seeing large sections of empty shelves in book stores, I may change my viewpoint.

I disagree with him about e-books. So does Gaby Wood, who also wrote an article on the subject in THE TELEGRAPH. She states that “Booksellers are the group most threatened by the possible death of the printed book, and they have a reason to think wishfully of the digital book’s demise.” She also said that publishers have got to stop thinking of their digital products as “books”, and start imagining more expansive ways of communicating information. Until then, the digital revolution hasn’t even begun.

I think Gaby Wood has it right—this whole electronic publishing wave has just gotten started. The possibilities for industries like publishing, education and entertainment are endless. To say that e-books will soon go into decline is a prediction that may become laughable in the future.

To put this prediction business into perspective, let me share with you some famous visionaries of the past whose predictions carried a great deal of weight when first put forth, but didn’t stand up to the test of time. Enjoy.

"This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a
means of communication.  The device is inherently of no value to us."
— Western Union internal memo, 1876

"Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons."
— Popular Mechanics, forecasting the relentless march of science, 1949

"I think there is a world market for maybe five computers."
— Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943

"640K ought to be enough for anybody."
— Bill Gates, 1981

"I have traveled the length and breadth of this country and talked with the
best people, and I can assure you that data processing is a fad that won’t
last out the year."
— The editor in charge of business books for Prentice Hall, 1957

"But what… is it good for?"
— Engineer at the Advanced Computing Systems Division of IBM, 1968, commenting on the microchip

"There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home."
— Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp., 1977

"The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay
for a message sent to nobody in particular?"
— David Sarnoff’s associates in response to his urgings for investment in the radio in the 1920s

"The concept is interesting and well-formed, but in order to earn better than a ‘C,’ the idea must be feasible."
— A Yale University management professor in response to Fred Smith’s paper proposing reliable overnight delivery service. Smith went on to found Federal Express Corp.

"Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?"
— H.M. Warner, Warner Brothers, 1927

"I’m just glad it’ll be Clark Gable who’s falling on his face and not Gary Cooper."
— Gary Cooper on his decision not to take the leading role in "Gone With The Wind"

"We don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out."
— Decca Recording Co. rejecting the Beatles, 1962

"Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible."
— Lord Kelvin, president, Royal Society, 1895

"So we went to Atari and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got this amazing thing, even built with some of your parts, and what do you think about funding us?  Or we’ll give it to you.  We just want to do it. Pay our salary, we’ll come
work for you.’  And they said, ‘No.’  So then we went to Hewlett-Packard, and they said, ‘Hey, we don’t need you. You haven’t got through college yet.’"
— Apple Computer Inc. founder Steve Jobs on attempts to get Atari and H-P interested in his and Steve Wozniak’s personal computer

"Professor Goddard does not know the relation between action and reaction and the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react. He seems to lack the basic knowledge ladled out daily in high schools."
— 1921 New York Times editorial about Robert Goddard’s revolutionary rocket work. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center is named after Professor Gaddard.

"Drill for oil?  You mean drill into the ground to try and find oil?  You’re crazy."
— Drillers who Edwin L. Drake tried to enlist to his project to drill for oil in 1859. Drake was the first man credited to drill for oil in the United States

"Airplanes are interesting toys but of no military value."
— Marechal Ferdinand Foch, Professor of Strategy, Ecole Superieure de Guerre

"Louis Pasteur’s theory of germs is ridiculous fiction."
— Pierre Pachet, Professor of Physiology at Toulouse, 1872

"Everything that can be invented has been invented."
— Charles H. Duell, Commissioner, U.S. Office of Patents, 1899

How about you? Any predictions on the fate of the printed book and the electronic book revolution?

32 thoughts on “Predicting the future

  1. Always loved these expert predictions. Listening to book people predicting that digital books (or, as I call them, “books”) will fade away is like recalling the days in the 1940s when movie and radio people were sure that television had no future. Rule 1 – Everything will change, all the time. Rule 2 – Even Rule 1.

  2. Well, I admire Waterstone’s allegiance to books, I think he might have his head (wistfully?) in the sand.

    I looked this up:

    Sales of ebooks in the UK, whose average price is £3 or less, compared with £5.50 for a paperback, rose by 134% to £216m in 2012, while print sales fell by 1%. Ebook sales in the UK now represent 7.4% of book publishers’ total sales, according to the UK Publishers Association. Amazon has 79% of the ebook market in the UK, according to Ofcom.

    • The 79% is probably consistent worldwide. Whether they’re considered the Evil Empire or the Host of Angels, they’re not going away.

  3. In my former career with big oil, a legendary story is about the accountant who told the boss that trying to build a pipeline from Alaska would never pay out. As a result, my former employer did not joint the Alyeska consortium.

    oops . . .

    Print books aren’t going anywhere. Paper technology is growing my leaps and bounds and will keep costs in line. On the same page, however, ebooks will continue to skyrocket and will be the savior of the short story and will help launch countless careers.

    There are about 1250 active literary agents. If each one signs an average of 2 per year, a lot of talented writers will either never try or fall by the wayside.

    The ebook naysayers need to either get with it or get run over by it. However, those who bemoan the “death” of traditional publishing really just sound as silly as those predictions above.


    • Agree with all your points, Terri. One thing that convinced me print was healthy and strong was when I recently helped judge a major book awards for hard cover novels. Over the course of 10 months, over 500 books showed up at my door. And that was just from publishers that bothered to enter them. Interestingly, about 10% were submitted in e-book format.

  4. I think the early-adaopter of ebooks have done so. The speed with which ebooks are adopted will slow some.
    There will always be people who prefer books. I think there is room for both.
    For now, the better deal for writers (authors, people who pound keyboards with their imaginations engaged) is in ebooks. That is the real danger to bookstores, when favorite authors are no longer available in ink.

    • You’re right, Brian. It’s also a huge benefit to authors trying to breath life into their backlist. No book will ever go out of print.

  5. I have read hundreds of e-books, but nothing compares to the feel of a Hardback book or even a paperback. After years of IPad reading, I’m now buying “books” again for the simple joy of touch.
    Of course, I’m one of a lost generation growing up in the 40’s and 50’s when I lived at the library 🙂
    BTW, love this site – I read it every day.

  6. I find that telling the future of things like ebooks vs. paperbooks may well be the wrong path. Between paper books and ebooks there have been only two real iterations of how text has been delivered, manually printed or digitally printed. But as we all know, all good things come in threes. well, we’ll eventually know that

    Having sent my cousin Leonard both forward and backward in our time machine I have learned that we can only base our understanding of the present on the relevance of the past as it pertains to the changes of the future in respect to the very same present tense, the tenseness of which is quite present in a very forward looking ever present past centric historical perspective.

    Or, to put it in the words of the eventually famous Thrillendel Airwalk Timebinder, Professor Champion Experticus of the University of Ifs, Ands, and Butts department of English, Anatomy, and Quantum Pastries: “I cannot foretell the future, nor even the nearly present. I can only foretell the past. With the exception that if you continue to eat the entire cheesecake by yourself your arse will need a separate bio-suit….perhaps even with a stellar postal code of its own.”**

    ** from the Second Opinions on Time, The Universe, and How to Get Future Chicks, 3rd Edition, Stardust Press, Brainbook Cerebral Download edition, ©3145 Earth, 4653 Mars, and 5413 Parallel Earth, Amazonschusterputnamscholastickensington Inc. All rights reserved.

    In that particular future, everyone knows that all patterns come in threes.

  7. I saw that article and couldn’t resist throwing in my two cents:

    “Oh, for Pete’s sake. It’s just books on a nice convenient electronic device. It’s not the end of the world. Well maybe it is for Waterstone, but hey!”

    But what made me laugh out loud was the Warner remark about actors. That’s something worth pondering:

    “Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?”
    — H.M. Warner, Warner Brothers, 1927

  8. This isn’t about e-books, but I still keep a copy of a memo I wrote to my boss many years ago in response to his request that I look into migrating our DOS systems to Microsoft Windows. My response: “There is no future in Microsoft Windows.”

    I keep it around just to remind myself that the future is not easy to predict.

  9. It’s all a matter of what you know, isn’t it, Joe? We (by whom I mean anyone over, say, thirty-five) know printed books. That’s what a “book” is to us, something with pages you hold in your hands. But for those younger, what is known is screens of various kinds, not books. And in the future, which of these two demographic groups will be calling the shots and making the choices?

    • Excellent point, Barry. Despite what some say, I didn’t grow up when buggy whips were in use, so I rarely need one. Kids these days take reading from a screen for granted.

  10. I am loving those quotes 😀 And yes, Waterstone isn’t in touch with the growing reality and permanence of ebooks. I don’t want print to disappear and I don’t think it will, but I believe it will become very niche, like luxury goods or collectors’ items.

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