A Whole New Book Cover. Welcome to the Future

Books of the future – will they be ebooks or will they be 3D printed? The world's first ever book with a 3D printed slip cover, On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee, goes on sale January 7. The novel is in most respects a normally printed hardback book, but there are a limited number of special edition slipcovers — which are more slip cases, really — that feature the words of the title rising slowly off the page from left to right. And it's all thanks to the miracle of 3D printing.

So this time next year, will we be looking at a sea of 3D book covers? Well, it's really anyone's guess, but this could signal a new trend in publishing. After all, this is one aspect of physical books that ebooks will never be able to replicate, being, you know, digital. Given the price — $150 for a 3D version versus only $27.95 for the standard hardback option — and the fact that the book cannot sit normally on a shelf but must be displayed facing outward, this book is definitely a luxury item. And while people have been making beautiful collector's editions of books for ages, the 3D cover elevates On Such a Full Sea to a whole different kind of art object.

It's hard to say what this might mean for publishing. After all, 3D printing is still too cumbersome of a process to truly mass produce these types of covers. The relatively simple design on Lee's novel takes a printer 15 hours to complete. The final number of 3D editions the publisher finally decided on (200, all of them also signed), was largely determined by how many could physically be printed.

Even if they could be mass produced, $150 is a lot of money for the average person to shell out for a book. Although 3D covers most likely won't become the norm, they could become a relatively common collector's item, reversing the conventional wisdom that hard copy books must become cheaper if they are to compete with ebooks for survival.

Whatever the future of 3D covers may be, it's a bit amusing that they are getting their start on On Such a Full Sea, a novel about a futuristic dystopia. Chang-rae Lee's latest work is set centuries from now in a United States where resources are scare and law and order have largely fallen by the wayside. So that bodes well, I guess.

But in all seriousness, whether this trend help physical books by giving them unique features ebooks can't replicate or hurts them by making them more about status and less about reading remains to be seen. In fact, it remains to be seen if this becomes a trend at all. But in the mean time, it's really, really cool.

Does anyone have $150 I can borrow?