We live in an era of digital technology, when most physical processes are becoming accessible through digital means. Writing and sending letters is practically a dead art form, thanks to the prevalence of email and instant messaging, and there’s even some evidence to suggest that phone calls are becoming obsolete.
By that same token, e-readers and tablets make it possible to read full-length books on a screen, and audiobooks make it easy to digest this information on the go. Does that mean printed books are on their way to becoming obsolete as well?
That may not be the case. Unit sales of printed books rose 3.3 percent in 2016, making it the third straight year of positive growth in the print industry. Both hardcover and trade paperbacks were up in sales, and a grand total of 674 million books sold.
By contrast, eBook sales in 2016 were actually down 20 percent. This is attributable both to a rising interest in printed books and increasing access to free reading materials online, but is an important indicator of reading trends.
So why is the printed book market still healthy?
First, printing isn’t all that expensive or intensive. Thanks to advanced presses and more intelligent production processes, it’s possible to run everything, from advertising booklets to full-length novels, in a way that’s more cost-effective for both manufacturers and end users. The fact that these printing services are available online, at relatively low cost, is further testament to their staying power.
Online resources have also given us better access to self-publishing, which allows writers to publish their work for as little as a few thousand dollars (plus another $1,000 to 3,000 for editing and cover design services). Most technologies and cultural practices go obsolete only when their costs (in time and/or money) start to exceed their unique benefits.
Limits of Digital Technology
Currently, there are several different ways to “experience” a book that don’t involve the printed page, the biggest being audiobooks and e-readers, which present books on a screen. These are convenient, but they’re still inherently limited in a few ways. For starters, despite advancements in recent years, screens are still harder to read than physical pages. They put more strain on your eyes, which can lead to headaches and eye problems, and may even disrupt your normal sleep cycle.
Audiobooks seem like the fastest way to get new information. Yet, the reality is that listening to audiobooks can make you bored and distracted, and ultimately make you retain less information than you would when reading the physical version. No matter how much you enjoy listening to audiobooks, reading is still a more efficient way to gain and experience the information in a book.
Obviously, technology can (and likely will) advance beyond these limitations, but for the foreseeable future, printed books remain the better option for most audiences. For niche audiences, such as the visually impaired, e-readers and audiobooks offer indisputable advantages, so there’s no danger of those technologies fizzling out.
Of course, personal preferences also come into play here; you won’t have to look far to find book lovers who swear by the experience of reading physical books, and some who wouldn’t dream of using an e-reader. To book lovers, there’s something irreplaceable about this experience. They appreciate the smell of a new book, the texture of the pages, and the physical experience of manually turning a page. They appreciate bookmarks, seeing the thickness of a long, challenging book in front of them, and in some cases taking notes in the margins.
You might think that those are preferences of older individuals, with younger generations gravitating toward the latest technology, but that isn’t the case either—in fact, 92 percent of college students prefer printed books to digital ones.
These strong motivators and appeals simply aren’t replicable by the digital technologies available to us, and however those technologies advance, there will undoubtedly be people who claim they aren’t as good as the “real thing.”
For those reasons, personal demand for printed books will likely continue for many decades to come—if not longer—and the statistics show it. Over 65 percent of Americans have read a printed book in the past year, compared to only 28 percent who have read an eBook.
Finally, there’s the nostalgia factor. Despite advancements in digital music technology that enable people to store thousands of songs in a pocketable device, some people still enjoy the experience of buying and playing bulky vinyl records. The nostalgia and “retro” vibes of this experience give it the ability to last through the ages, and books will likely follow in the same vein. Like vinyl, the printed book may even see a brief “death,” only to come back in full force at a later date.
Based on those factors and others, it’s highly unlikely that printed books will become obsolete as fast or as completely as other tangible cultural touchstones like letter writing.
New technology in 100 years may be so unrecognizably advanced, it’s impossible to predict its effects. Still, it’s safe to say that books will stick around for a long time to come. Book lovers, rejoice!