Digital Catalogs: Gateway Drugs?

Ellen at the UNC Press blog is worried that digital-only catalogs are just the first step:

The tough (and painful) budget crunching happening throughout the publishing industry right now coincides with new technologies that can allow us to do more online and less in print. Here at UNCP, we are not quite at the point of getting rid of our print catalog and going all online, as HarperCollins has done, but who knows what we’ll be doing next time around. Personally, I wonder, if I can’t hold it, will it still feel like a completed project? I’m talking about catalogs at the moment, which hold sentimental value only (if at all) to those who put their sweat into them, but then I start to panic: is a digital-only catalog the gateway drug to digital-only books??

I doubt this is the case precisely because there are people like Ellen around to worry about something like that. The nice thing about the book industry is that, unlike other industries, it's still dominated by people who use and love the things they make. It's a lot more likely that an auto industry CEO will cancel some car he doesn't view as the most profitable possible than bibliophile publishers are going to stop making books because they see a little more revenue in it.

In any event, I don't think printed books are going to be a losing proposition anytime soon. The market is going to give people the product they want: most readers don't buy or otherwise consume catalogs, so publishers are going to digitize away. By contrast, we're seeing a lot of "keep the book" sentiment among consumers, leading me to believe that publishers are going to view printed books as desirable for some time.

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Never having seen this catalog, I’ve no doubt it’s a very attractive product, but we have to give up the idea of a “catalog” or “guide” as “done”.
Ideally, this type of material should be continually updated, commented on, added to. The idea of a “catalog” has to give way to a more fluid, changing guide.

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