Buh-Bye Print Books?

The coming demise of books in print was proclaimed by a slew of commentators as early as the mid-1990s. But if books could talk, they might’ve taken a cue from Mark Twain and exclaimed, “The reports of [our] death are greatly exaggerated.”*

Indeed, volumes with pages neither zoomable nor swipeable will almost certainly be around in the foreseeable future. Add to that the reality that most baby boomers are determined to stick with print to their dying day, and growing life expectancy suggests that many aren’t going to the great beyond anytime soon. Yet another hint: Amid all the talk of the potential extinction of libraries, the new “electronic-only” libraries popping up around the country are intended to complement the traditional library, not replace it.

Survey says? In 2012, monthly StatShot statistics from the Association of American Publishers (AAP) – a survey of approximately 1,200 book publishers – showed that e-books accounted for 22.5 percent of publishing industry revenue, up from 17 percent, even if e-books sales had begun to show signs plateauing around 2010, in part because consumers were turning to multifunction tablets and smartphones.

In fact, e-books treaded water through 2014, while the sale of print books inched up. Flash forward to September 23, 2015, when a front-page story in The New York Times reported data from the AAP showing that e-book sales slipped 10 percent from January through May. Sing hallelujah and grab the bookmarks! And the good news for print-lovers doesn’t end there: Independent bookstores are on the comeback trail. The American Booksellers Association now has 1,712 member stores in 2,227 locations, up from 1,410 member stores in 1,660 five years ago – a 25 percent increase, or an average of 5 percent more new stores each year.

Or “Welcome Back”?

Three years ago I straw-polled eight nieces and nephews, then ranging in age from 8 to 15 – and much to my surprise (given their generation’s propensity to keep its collective nose in an electronic device of some sort), not one could ever even imagine giving up print books entirely. And to my amazement, that itty-bitty straw poll was seemingly confirmed by this sentence in the New York Times article: “According to some surveys, young readers who are digital natives still prefer reading on paper.”

When you think about it, there are compelling reasons to hold onto to real books, like these:

  • Books are things of beauty in themselves. This is even truer of high-quality books, no matter the content. A page full of pixels will never possess the heft, feel, and papery scent of a book, nor does it have a link to age-old craftsmanship (bookbinding dates back to ancient Egypt). On top of that, the design of book covers has become an art in its own right.
  • Books are physical keepsakes. It would be a pity if we were unable to pass books down from one generation to another. Tea sets, silverware, paintings, or relics from the ancestor who fought in the Civil War are nice, but a what a particular forebear chose to read casts light not only the person but also on bygone eras.**
  • Books make a home all the cozier. “A house without books is like a day without sunshine.” Or is that “A meal without wine…?” The variation is apt, since little warms a home more than books; they also personalize it, be they on a few shelves or all four walls of a room. Visitors can rarely resist browsing the array of titles to see what you read – a tried and true conversation starter.
  • Books are coveted collectibles.There’s a reason some first-edition novels and nonfiction books can command a small fortune. So can rare or accidentally flawed coins and stamps, but which hobby is more interesting: numismatics (coin collecting), philately (stamp collecting), or bibliophilia (book collecting/love)? If you ask me, literature vs. currency vs. postage = no contest.

Naturally, e-books have their advantages. For one, taking a boatload of print books on a trip is impossible, yet a small-town library’s worth of books will fit in an e-reader. E-books also cost less, become “large type editions” with a quick click or swipe, and can easily be read in the dark. If brick-and-mortar bookstores disappear and print books are sold only online, an e-book will be yours instantaneously, while you’ll be twiddling your thumbs as you wait for its printed-and-bound counterpart.

The bottom line? Print books will be published and distributed at least until the end of this century, but how long they can compete with e-books thereafter is simply unknowable. What I myself know for certain is the type of information delivery system I’ll always choose to settle down with in an armchair – and you can probably easily guess which one.

* The 1897 death of James Ross Clemens, Mark Twain’s cousin, was inexplicably transferred to Twain himself in the public mind. Soon afterwards Twain told a reporter, “The report of my death has been exaggerated.” He later restyled the quote before using it in a speech and inserted the word “greatly,” and it is this version that has been passed down to posterity.

** See also “A Bright Idea?” in Old Books for Young Eyes.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *