Nearly fifty years ago, literary critic Roland Barthes announced that the author was dead. Is the print book next in line?

Librairie des Puf, once a staple of the Paris bibliophile scene in the early 20th century, has reinvented itself and opened shop once again. Using print-on-demand technology, Librairie des Puf prints books while customers wait and sip an espresso.

“The customers are all surprised,” said the shop’s director, Alexandre Gaudefroy. “At first, they’re a little uncomfortable with the tablets. After all, you come to a bookshop to look at books. But thanks to the machine and the tablets, the customer holds a digital library in their hands.”

From 2000 to 2014, 28% of Paris  bookstores closed because of increased rent and growing competition from online book retailers and e-commerce sites, but Libraire des Puf, or Les Puf, Gaudefroy said, is poised to become the “Gutenberg press of the 21st century.” Instead of paying high overhead costs for rental of large spaces to display books, Gaudefroy is able to run his bookstore in a space measuring less than 80 square meters. Customers entering the small store will see a few chairs, tablets for selecting books, and the printing machine in the back of the room.

That’s not the only difference that booklovers will notice. The print-on-demand technology allows Gaudefroy to revive old titles, and browsers can select from a larger library than the old Les Pufs could contain.

If print-on-demand technology is the Gutenberg press of the future, then true to the nature of the original revolutionary press, these book sellers will likely upend one traditional process of producing books; print-on-demand purveyors are simultaneously booksellers, publishers, printers, and distributors.

Innovative use of social media and other forms of carefully-planned promotion become important tools in this new era of publishing. Gaudefroy and other print-on-demand bookstores rely on foot traffic, word-of-mouth, social media, and leaflets targeting their primary customer, nearby university students.

However, not all is lost for those who still want to enter a bookstore and smell the paper and see shelves full of colorful possibilities. After a decade of decline, independent bookstores abroad are also seeing a rebound. The turn-around is not haphazard or a result of chance, though, as booksellers are increasingly turning to innovative uses of space, promotion through apps and social media, or even reinventing the bookstore experience by adding more coffee shops and cafes.

Whatever happens to the print book in the next fifty years, it’s safe to say that we will continue to see more changes, more disruption, but also more innovation, more possibilities.

For more, see New Chapter for Classic Paris Bookstore: Books Printed on DemandThe New York Times, June 12, 2016.

Posted by Kristen Harmon