Print will never die

I don’t have much to say about the Amazon vs. Macmillan title bout, nor the e-book vs. tree book debate, other than that I think print will never die. E-sales and e-publishing will certainly cut into print business. Maybe at some point e-publishing will own a majority of the market share, compared to print.

But comparisons between the music biz — where e-sales are rapidly overtaking (have overtaken?) physical sales — and the book biz, quickly break down. Mainly because when you buy a CD you’re not buying that CD for the cover art, the silver plastic disc, or the jewel box. These are all just accessories to the listening experience. And the listening experience has nothing at all to do with the format, beyond convenience.

Case in point. I routinely buy music from Amazon.com’s MP3 download center because I do all my music listening via MP3 now, and I am so happy as a result. My MP3 player never skips, gets scratched, fits in any pocket, goes anywhere I do, and transfers easily from car stereo to headphones to workplace to home, and back again. I have a full backup of all MP3 I have ever downloaded and which does not have a physical disc in our (thousand disc sized) CD library. So I never have to worry if my MP3 player gets lost or stolen. Heck, even the player itself is disposable because I don’t use an iPod. I use those neat little $20 Coby thumb drives that take a AAA battery. Finally, Amazon e-albums cost roughly $8 to $9 each — or about what I used to pay for an album on cassette or in LP form. My internal ‘price checker’ accepts this amount far more easily than it ever accepted the exortion-level $17 price tag of the physical CD.

I’m different with books. When I want to read fiction, it’s about more than just scanning words with my eyes. It’s about the feel of the perfect-bound paperback in my hands. The smell of the thing, how the pages turn, and yes, even the cover art and how the book has been packaged. Younger readers may disagree, but I think there is something to be said for the physical experience of reading, in addition to the mental and emotional experience. And I don’t think you can replicate that experience with an electronic device, however you want to dress it up.

Moreover, you can read a paper book by sun or candlelight. You don’t have to worry if the book’s battery is going to die. You don’t have to worry about electromagnetism screwing with your book or erasing the words from the page. You can loan the book to your friend, and get it back again, without violating digital copyright. You can drop the book in the tub and not have to freak out because now the book — or rather, all the books contained on the book — are toast. Just clip the book up somewhere it can fan open and have a bit of air, and within a day or two you can be reading it again, albeit with a few wrinkles.

I am sure eventually we’ll have e-readers that can contain the entire Library of Congress on them. It won’t matter much to me because I’m not about volume. Unless I am being sent overseas with the Army, volume and portability aren’t crucial factors. Not for me. It’s about being able to curl up somewhere away from a gottdamned computer screen, and having a physical, mental and emotional experience that is pleasant. That is — dare I say it — more tangible than pixels.

I’m a child of the digital age. I grew up with electronic games and media in their initial iteration. I am not a Luddite. But I think there are enough consumers like me — yes, even people born after I was — who appreciate the tree book versus the e-book, that print will never be given the boot. Whether it’s via centralized publishing like we have had for some time now, or an eventual “abundant” or libertine model where everything is self-published and printed on-demand after having been browsed for and sampled electronically.

Many people want written stories on a page, not on a screen. And I think this will be true for now, 100 years from now, and probably 1,000 years from now.

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4 thoughts on “Print will never die

  1. Hi Brad,

    I’ll chuck my two cents in – the Kindle was launched in my country Australia a few months and it really doesn’t interest me, neither do any other e-book readers. Last week one of my city’s newspapers printed an article on the burgeoning e-book revolution – and buried right at the end of the article was the figure of e-book sales being just under 2% of book sold during 2009. If this figure is reasonably accurate then e-books have a long way to go before print dies.

    I’m not a Luddite either – 90% of my working life has revolved around audio visual technology and I’ll take computer based video and audio editing technology over tape based technology any day.

    Growing up as a child and teenager I only ever had access to a TV when I visited my dad on the weekends – I was a voracious reader of fiction then and as an adult I became a voracious reader of non-fiction. Now I combine both and I’ll take the heft of a hardcover book any day over a lightweight electronic gadget. When I was a teenager I used to love tracking down 2nd hand copies of my favourite authors and haunting my city’s only specialist SF & F/comic shop. Downloading e-book files would have nowhere near the thrill of finding a sought after book.

    IMHO e-book readers particularly lack when it comes to non-fiction books – especially when it comes to books on fields such as art and architecture and science. A greyscale screen can’t do them justice. I’m not entirely sure that e-book readers with colour screens would the job either. I also know that one shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover but seeing the array of different covers on the bookstore shelves will always beat seeing small jpegs on a on-line retailers website.

    I’m such a hardcore printed word lover that I love the fact that the Internet broadens the avenues available short fiction – but I always prefer to print the stories out to read them.

    One thing I remember from my child hood reading – particularly British books such as Enid Blyton’s is the way illustrations were used to complement the story. IMHO some publishers will return to this for novels that it particularly suits – examples that spring to mind are Scott Westerfeld’s “Leviathan” and James A Owens “The Chronicles of the Imaginarium Geographica”: series.

    Finally publishers will always exist in some form IMHO – I doubt whether many writers would want to be project managers of the various professionals (editors, copy editors, type setters, cover artists etc) required to turn out a professional looking finished self published book and/or e-book.

    Cheers,

    Ben

  2. Great comments, Ben!

    Methinks the vaunted “e-book revolution” is being driven primarily by technophiles and gadgeteers. As you pointed out — and this is a figure I have seen elsewhere — the % of the market occupied by e-books right now is miniscule, at best. Which means the vast majority of book buyers are still looking for print, and frankly I don’t see that changing any time soon. I think the “revolution” is way out in front of itself right now, and I think a lot of the corporate and writer histrionics over the subject are, at best, somewhat premature.

    Your point about non-fiction books is particularly apt. At home my wife and I have a HUGE, gorgeous National Geographic world atlas. No e-book device could ever hope to do this book justice. Not unless the screen was full color, hi-res, and equalled or surpassed the atlas in actual display size. Same for many other books in our library, such as our solar system atlas, numerous home improvement books, picture/text books on architecture and history, etc, etc.

    I could go on, but I think you and I are on the same page. (pun totally intended!)

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