Don’t Burn Your Books

Nicolas Carr writes in the WSJ,

Don’t Burn Your Books—Print Is Here to Stay
The e-book had its moment, but sales are slowing. Readers still want to turn those crisp, bound pages.

Lovers of ink and paper, take heart. Reports of the death of the printed book may be exaggerated.

NookEver since Amazon introduced its popular Kindle e-reader five years ago, pundits have assumed that the future of book publishing is digital. Opinions about the speed of the shift from page to screen have varied. But the consensus has been that digitization, having had its way with music and photographs and maps, would in due course have its way with books as well. By 2015, one media maven predicted a few years back, traditional books would be gone.

Half a decade into the e-book revolution, though, the prognosis for traditional books is suddenly looking brighter. Hardcover books are displaying surprising resiliency. The growth in e-book sales is slowing markedly. And purchases of e-readers are actually shrinking, as consumers opt instead for multipurpose tablets. It may be that e-books, rather than replacing printed books, will ultimately serve a role more like that of audio books—a complement to traditional reading, not a substitute.

Read the entire essay at The Wall Street Journal.

I’m not sure that anyone ever said that traditional paper and ink books were going away completely (and one unnamed pundit is considered Fox News proof) but there has been plenty of discussion concerning digital media becoming the predominant form of publishing in the future and I don’t see Carr’s essay as changing that prediction. Look at one of his points: he suggests evidence of the “decline” of the digital book because sales of electronic ink eReaders like the original Kindle and Nook have declined. Well, duh:  the older single purpose devices are just not as attractive as the newer tablet devices that have considerably more versatility but still act as eReaders. One might also question if this decline is based on units sold or on market value (you need to sell four or five basic Kindles or Nooks to cover the price of those devices when they were originally introduced. The most laughable statistic Carr states in that the rise of people having read an eBook was modest, from 16 percent last year to 23 percent . That’s an increase of over 25 percent … hardly modest. And when you remember that half of Americans are projected to never read a book, you can see the gross equivication that Carr is passing off as evidence.

Carr also seems to be compartmentalizing his argument by referring only to books with the subtext that he is talking about books you can buy easily at the big-box-bookstores. I suggest that the experiences with newspapers and magazines is strong evidence that digital texts are the direction. Look at Newsweek:  no longer available in print, only electronically. Stop and remember many years ago all the weekly magazines that showed up in the mailbox on the side of the porch:  Life, Look, Saturday Evening Post, Mad Magazine, etc. It was said at that time that the cost of postage is what killed these periodicals. Now, with electronic distribution, a magazine can bypass all that messy handling and postage and be bought, received, and read on an electronic device. And let’s not forget that many readers are using their computers to read books and magazines, not just eInk devices.

I love books and have hundreds displayed all over my little house. But I don’t save books I have read:  I recycle then at the library or the book exchange or send them to friends. But the problem is that if I continue to only read paper and ink books, I will soon have to stop reading entirely because my eyes are in conflict with the inordinately small print of the classics I love to read. Therefore, I either struggle through a book with a very large magnifying glass or I get the book on my digital reader and bump the font up four or five times so that I can read it comfortably.

I also read certain periodicals—Skeptic, NYRB, The Nation, etc.—and tend to get behind on my reading letting stacks of magazines and newspapers grow in the corners of my library and on most of the flat surfaces around the house. I have recently starting taking my subscription in digital form and, although I am just as far behind in my reading, I can keep years of periodicals on my networked hard drive without taking up much space at all… digitally or on the dining room table.

Carr makes an additional point:

Readers of weightier fare, including literary fiction and narrative nonfiction, have been less inclined to go digital. They seem to prefer the heft and durability, the tactile pleasures, of what we still call “real books”—the kind you can set on a shelf.

I suspect this less-that-informed writer has never heard of Project Gutenberg. For those that haven’t visited PG, pay a visit; you might notice that PG has most of its books in formats for just about any eReader or computer system, all for free! The only restriction is that PG does not provide digital copies of books that are still controlled by copyright restrictions. Additionally, I find that the term “literary fiction” is a red-flag that forces me to question the literary credentials of a journalist. But to answer the concern I suggest, not that eBooks are more prevalent in the world of fluff and ripped bodices, but that the availability of a specific digital text is more of a factor of the profit a publisher expects to make off the book. Compared to unicorns and soft-core porn, more serious literature just doesn’t sell as much. If a book becomes popular (goes viral?), you can be sure that the publisher will provide it in as many formats as possible to increase the profits.

And in conclusion, Carr’s argument that “Having survived 500 years of technological upheaval, Gutenberg’s invention may withstand the digital onslaught as well” is silly at best. The fact is, 500 years of technological upheaval are also 500 years of advances and improvements on what Gutenberg invented. It is entirely possible that the digital media will replace the old ways. Even if they don’t completely supplant paper and ink books, the digital world may be the one thing that is keeping the old ways alive. Imagine our contemporary writers chasing the family goose around the backyard to get a nice feather for a quill and then writing their book using lampblack for ink; and how many copies of that book are going to be published with a hand operated press and hand-set printing plates? Today’s author writes on a computer and forwards his text electronically to the publisher for review, making corrections and additions online; then a computer takes the digital text and feeds it into a fully automated printing press that churns out thousands of books without the need for human intervention; then the books are packaged and shipped with electronic tracking, computerized billing, etc. The actual paper and ink book is merely an artifact of the digital process. Someday, like Newsweek, publishers are going to drop that step.

It’s not a matter of how good a book smells or how one enjoys the heft of a book, it’s how much profit the publisher can make. When the profits from digital editions grow and the cost of making digital editions declines, then the publishers will make the decision concerning eBooks. The reader really has little to say.

It is a mistake to think that books have come to stay. The human race did without them for thousands of years and may decide to do without them again. — E. M. Forster

3 responses

  1. I NEVER AGREE…
    book burning is book burning….
    to be free from the tyranny of the word may not be such a bad thing…
    kindle is kindle… and a mightybonfire of other folks’ vanities may not be a bad thing, either…
    i think i should have received a kindle once over… from whom? i do not know…
    as i say, i haven’t read a book for years. and i will not read one in the near future… not having a secure abode to dwell within…
    naw; mass technological indulgence is tedious. one needs space to breathe…
    i have nothing to impart, herein…. i will leave it to the mass educated throng to debate the issue… but fair play to you, playing devil’s advocate suits you well…
    regards
    sutcliffe

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  2. I agree with author, somewhat, that digital reading will eventually make the virtual book obsolete to the general public, but there will always be bibliophiles who would rather read the hard copy, or at least have copies for their collections. I’m one who has not yet gotten an e-reader or tablet, but am considering it because of space issues and eyesight, as the article points out. Very good article, giving both sides.

    Like

    • I agree, there will always be bibliophiles who collect real books just like there are people that collect arrowheads … but when was the last time our armed forces entered battle with a long bow? Besides, no matter how much we argue that real books are aesthetically pleasing, if the publisher doesn’t see a profit, there will be no new books printed.

      Times change. We are seeing digital electronics replacing or supplanting every phase of our lives and it isn’t a huge leap to include reading in the equation.

      Of course, the next question is, when will Skynet come online?

      Like

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