The annual national book festival, which opens tomorrow, presents the perfect moment to remember the enduring importance of the book in all of its incarnations. Recently, there have been alarmist predictions made about the print book’s demise because of the e-book’s rise. These predictions sometimes even include dire warnings about the collapse of the very concept of the book itself because of the interactive dynamism of the multimedia and multi-platform e-book.
Indeed, expanding sales, coupled with an apparent insatiable social obsession with information communication technologies, made the e-book’s eventual conquest over its print counterpart seem inevitable.
These predictions became particularly frenzied from the late-2000s and early-2010s. In 2007, Amazon released its Kindle e-reader, helping facilitate the sales of e-books for cheap. From 2008 to 2010, according to The New York Times, sales of e-books increased dramatically, rising 1,260 per cent. The seeming e-book juggernaut continued with the introduction of the Nook e-reader, the iPad, and the iBooks Store. Real-world, physical bookshops, meanwhile, began to suffer. For instance, in 2011, the American bookshop chain, Borders Books, declared bankruptcy. Other big bookshop chains began closing locations, decreasing inventory, and reducing staff. Small and independent bookshops were closing.
But despite these events, the predictions about the print book’s demise were short-sighted. They failed to account for its enduring popularity. First, while some people fretted, and indeed continue to worry, that new information communication technologies and the internet are undermining the very concept of the book, it must be remembered that the book itself is an adaptable and flexible technology that has changed and evolved along with other technologies throughout the years.
Second, according to the Pew Research Centre, despite more digital distractions competing for our time and attention – from social media to entertainment streaming services –there remains a strong desire for reading books, especially print books. In fact, in 2015, book sales and readership trends in both the US and UK showed, broadly, the book’s enduring popularity, and specifically, an apparent levelling off of the e-book’s popularity.
Regarding the book’s enduring popularity, in the US, for instance, 65 per cent of American adults said they had read at least one printed book in the past year (the same percentage as in 2012). When e-books and audiobooks, moreover, are included in American readership habits and trends over the past year, this percentage rises to 73 per cent. Of this percentage, 38 per cent stated they read print books exclusively, six per cent said they read e-books exclusively, and 28 per cent indicated they read a combination of print and e-books.
According to Lee Rainie, the Pew Research Centre’s director of internet, science, and technology research: “If you looked back a decade ago, certainly five or six years ago when e-books were taking off, there were folks who thought the days of the printed book were numbered, and it’s just not so in our data.” After all, three-quarters of Americans continue to enjoy reading books, especially their print versions.
In many ways, readers still take greater pleasure in a print book that does not translate well onto digital screens
Sales of print books have also begun to overtake those of e-books once again. According to the UK’s Publishers’ Association, print book sales in the UK increased from £2.74 billion to £2.76 billion in 2015, after numerous years of stagnation. Sales of e-books declined in the same period, from £563 million to £554 million. These numbers represent the first time in four years that the UK witnessed an increase in sales of print books and also the first time in seven years that e-book sales dropped.
These recent sales figures and readership trends indicate the print book is not going away. Stephen Lotinga, the Publishers Association’s chief executive, argues that predictions of the print book’s demise were premature. He says that “those who made predictions about the death of the book may have underestimated just how much people love paper”.
The managing director of Penguin General Books, Joanna Prior, concurs, stating that “any suggestion that the physical book is doomed can now definitively be refuted as we trade less neurotically in a more stable, multi-format world”. There are e-books and new ways of reading with new kinds of devices, yet, nevertheless, the book endures.
There were, in fact, some early signs showing that the e-book was not exactly the juggernaut it seemed to be made out to be. Since as far back as 2011, for example, sales of the Kindle e-reader, while initially outstripping sales of print books, has been experiencing a steep decline. Last year, moreover, Waterstones, the British bookshop chain, stopped selling Kindles, restricted its sales of e-books to the UK market only, and increased shelf space for print books, resulting in a five per cent increase in sales. Sony, meanwhile, discontinued its e-reader products, and Amazon opened its first real-world, physical bookshop.
But many people failed to see these signs. According to Simon Jenkins of The Guardian, “publishing, like other industries before (and since), suffered a bad attack of technodazzle: it failed to distinguish between newness and value”. He states that the e-book was never really a threat to the print book, explaining how “the book was declared dead with the coming of radio. The hardback was dead with the coming of paperbacks. Print-on-paper was buried fathoms deep by the great god, digital. It was all rubbish, all rubbish. Like other aids to reading, such as rotary presses, Linotyping and computer-setting, digital had brought innovation to the dissemination of knowledge and delight. But it was a means, not an end.”
In many ways, readers still take greater pleasure in a print book that does not translate well onto digital screens.
Despite the hype of recent years, e-book sales and popularity are far from overtaking the overall book market. The print book’s popularity endures and is highly likely to remain so in the long-term. Ultimately, the print book and e-book are not in competition with each other. Neither of them pose a threat to the other; instead, they complement, support, and extend each other.
Their coexistence is in fact beneficial for readers and publishers. Publishers, for example, can release print and/or e-books as appropriate, and readers can have their pick of acquiring either version or both versions.
Regardless of their form or format, people simply want books and want to read them. As Lee Rainie of the Pew Research Centre states, people “want books to be available wherever they are. They’ll read an e-book on a crowded bus, curl up with a printed book when they feel like that, and go to bed with a tablet”. Indeed, the print book endures while the e-book expands the very concept of the book into a more interactive, immersive, and networked entity. Indeed, the book, whether print or electronic, is here to stay.
Marc Kosciejew is a lecturer andformer head of department of Library Information and Archive Sciences at the University of Malta.
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