It’s a debate that has now existed for a number of years and one that has almost been beaten to death; print vs. digital reading. Which will be the future? Will print books cease to exist? Or will both co-exist peacefully? It’s a topic that will not go away anytime soon, but one I am still interested in analyzing in greater detail here.
First, let’s examine print books. There are numerous articles out there stating that print book sales are on a steep decline. For example, Publisher’s Weekly published an article stating that in the first quarter of 2016, sales of adult books fell 10.3% compared to sales numbers in 2015, and mass market paperback sales fell 25.5% compared to a year earlier. In another article published by Publisher’s Weekly, they state that in a case of déjà vu all over again Barnes & Noble, the biggest book selling chain in the US, is closing another location in the New York area. It was a similar announcement to one made “almost exactly two years ago to the day.”
However, there are also people who state that print books are going as strong as ever. One such person is Michael Kozlowski. His article on Good e Reader states that in the United Kingdom, physical book sales turned up, from £2.74bn to £2.76bn. It’s not a huge improvement, but it’s an improvement nonetheless. Kozlowski in the article also states that “it looks like e-books were merely a passing fad and many people have switched back to print.” He points to numerous statistics such as e-books sales as a percentage of total book sales “fell from 35.9% in April 2015 to 32.4% in April 2016.”
The same is true for eBooks. Many people believe that the eBook is the way of the future, and that print books will slowly cease to exist. An article by Mathew Ingram in Fortune states that e-books are not declining. Ingram states that the stats that say eBooks are dying don’t take into consideration the whole picture; in fact, the market share of established publishers such as Random House has been declining, while sales of independently published e-books have been growing. He even said an article by the New York Times “had more than a whiff of anti-digital Schadenfreude about it.”
However, there are also people who state that e-books are simply a passing fad. For example, Jim Milliot of Publishers Weekly takes an in-depth look at e-books sales and their decline. His article states that Publishers found that sales of eBooks for trade publishers fell 14% in 2015 compared to 2014. Going more in depth, it says that the decline of e-book sales is probably because of two reasons. First, reading on a digital device is still an optional thing. Unlike music for example, which has entirely switched over to digital mediums such as smartphones, books haven’t had that same transition. As well, Milliot also mentions something called “digital fatigue.” Digital fatigue can be simply described as a weariness attributable to forced connectivity and excessive usage of screens, drawn from the idea that one does not want to look at an ereader after spending all day likely looking at a computer and smartphone screen.
How did it get to this point?
The debate between print and eBooks is really an extension of a larger debate within society in the 21st century. Is it better to go with new technology? Or is the old way of doing things just as good, if not superior.
We can see this debate in various other cultural industries, such as the music industry. Since file sharing site Napster started to become popular around the year 1999, the music industry has undergone a profound shift. (Side note: Napster actually still exists believe it or not. It’s just evolved into a music streaming site.) Now, instead of going to a big box music store such as HMV, people are buying music online – or more often than not, downloading it illegally. Not only are people getting music differently, but they are consuming music differently as well. 20 years ago, most people listened to music on a CD player or a Walkman; now, most people listen to music on their phones or their computer. Music is now consumed on a digital streaming service such as Spotify, illegally downloading it through a number of different channels, or purchasing it through iTunes.
Likewise with the movie industry. 20 years ago, to watch a movie at go, one had to physically pick up a copy from either a local movie place, or from a big box rental place such as Blockbuster. If you missed a movie when it was in theatres, you would have to wait until it was released on VHS before you could see it. However, that has now changed. Netflix now allows you to watch an unlimited amount of films, for a monthly subscription fee. And of course, you can illegally download films that are still in movie theaters, if you want to watch them that badly.
Now this debate has extended to the book industry. While the way in which books are read has not been decided, the way they are purchased has been. Amazon is arguably the biggest seller of print books, and one of the largest in e-books as well. Big box retail stores such as Chapters-Indigo in Canada, and Barnes & Noble in the United States, are starting to close.
The only difference is, we have yet to decide a winner. Unlike music and movies, the new way of consuming the product has not won yet. Netflix had 70 million subscribers in 2015, and that number is surely to increase in the future. Music is now predominantly streamed online or illegally downloaded. However, as we can see above, print books and e-books are currently in a battle for superiority.
So as we can see, most people are divided on the subject. Some people believe print books are dying, and some believe they are on the decline; likewise for e-books. We’ve also examined some reasons why this debate has gotten to this point. So what is the future for both? Well, it will probably be a future in which both co-exist peacefully.
First, there is no real convenience to switching to eBooks as compared to print books. Unlike music, digital formats gave way to greater convenience and sharing. With the introduction of portable mp3 players such as the iPod, no longer were you forced to carry around a bulky portable CD player. You could hold thousands of songs in the palm of your hand, and listen to them however many times you want. With the proliferation of illegal music, you could also download music from the past 40 years and have it on your iPod.
Same with movies. Netflix and other streaming services provided a way to be able to watch entire TV shows and movie series without leaving your couch. No longer did you have to physically go out and rent a series of VHS’ and DVD’s. Illegal downloads also allow you to watch nearly everything for free as well.
EBooks do not provide a higher level of convenience that print books. There’s no incentive to switch over to eBooks from print books. An e-book reader is around the same size as a paperback; they haven’t gotten to sizes of iPods or smartphones because it would ruin the experience of reading. Reading for extended period of time on an iPhone is painful; thus they have to stay the same size as books or no one would use them.
Another thing that has played into the popularity of digital music and movies that will probably not translate into digital books is time of consumption. The average song is around 3 minutes and 30 seconds in length, with a whole album being around 1 hour or more. The average TV show is 21-42 minutes without commercials. Movies range from one hour to close to three. This plays into the hands of the digital medium; it’s easily digestible and once you finish one, you can easily move on to the other.
However, it takes much longer for someone to read an entire book. From personal experience, the fastest I’ve ever read a book was in six hours, and that was an incredibly short book. And unlike movies or music, you don’t read an entire book in one sitting; you usually read parts of it at a time over an extended period of time. Thus, you won’t be scouring the internet constantly looking for new material, and won’t be likely to buy or download a ton of eBooks.
In all, the truth between eBooks and print books lies somewhere in the middle. EBooks will probably not change the way that books are read in the near future, but they are not going away either. Likewise, print books are not once the dominant way of reading, but they are not going away anytime soon. The publishing industry has changed; however, unlike other forms of media, the new way of consuming the content will probably not take over quite yet. Both will coexist for the time being.