What’s That Your Reading…? : Print in a Digital Mass Market Age - Book Week


Photo by Lin Pernille.

In the mid-15th century, Johannes Gutenberg invented a mechanical way of making books- the first example of mass book production. The jet black ink flows from liquid pigments to produce words on a page–the pages themselves, slivers of fell trees. All bound together with cardboard and twine by the millions, they are pushed on down the assembly line, brought finally to nestle into narrow wooden bookshelves at your local booksellers shop, and find their way to your hands to tell you their story.

Or so it once was. In our increasingly technological age avid streamlining has compressed options on where we can go to find our favorite authors. The rise of Barnes & Noble coupled with the arrival of e-book readers has pushed many small (and not so small) booksellers out of business. Most notably (or perhaps just most noticeably) Borders bookstore closed its doors for good this past September. Once a popular and familiar destination for many New Yorkers, the name Borders can no longer be found amongst the city’s multitudinous storefronts. The closure of Borders means fewer places sell or promote books and book discovery. At the very least the closure of such a big bookselling franchise will leave publishers having to reduce their print runs and shipments.

According to a Fordham University professor interviewed for this USA today piece, traditional bookstores (independents and the chains) accounted for less than half of the book market last year. The majority of books were sold by a variety of other retailers including Amazon, Price Clubs, supermarkets and convenience stores. More than 1,000 bookstores closed from 2000 through 2007, leaving about 10,600, according to the latest federal statistics. Though, surprisingly some small booksellers are noting a rise in their business lately.

Kate Khatib, co-owner of Red Emmas, a small popular bookstore in Baltimore, had this to say: “For a while the consumer trend was to the bigger, more mass-market oriented stores. But consumer trends change, and there’s been an increasing shift back toward local, independent stores in the past year or three — and that’s been exciting to see. As the big stores start to focus more and more of their energy on e-books and online sales, small, indie retailers with real people curating real stock for physical customers are going to start seeming a lot more special.”

According to the Association of American Publishers, e-book sales rose 200% from February of 2010 to February of 2011, and these numbers are expected to continue rising. Many computer companies have tried to capitalize on turning books into digital devices, but the ones which have succeeded in winning over a substantial audience are Barnes & Noble’s Nook, and Amazon’s Kindle. Amazon.com has reported selling 143 Kindle e-books for every 100 paperbacks. The number of titles available comes nowhere close to what’s available in paperback, but this is a problem that is being continuously worked on. Kindle currently offers 725,000 titles and now allows you to connect to library e-books as well.

For e-book readers ink on a page has turned into e-paper, a vastly complex and expensive-to-produce material made of electronic liquid-crystal. The page itself has disappeared–melding into a malleable, smooth computer screen. What we now hold in our hands is a small, glowing screen made of plastic and billions of digital codes–centuries of technology from the long-lived ink and paper routine.

So who’s buying these new electronic readers? The wealthy and the highly educated, read: people with disposable income–another reason why these expensive e-books stand to not ultimately triumph over paperbacks. A child or an adult with little cash flow can always find a 25 cent ratty but intact paperback at a garage sale and the story will grip them just as much as it would on a $400 dollar computer screen, maybe more.

The long-term economic effect of a shift from print to digital on both publishers and booksellers isn’t clear at the moment, but whether the shift is dramatic or more gradual, it is a fact that the number of bookstores is declining. To boot paperback sales were down 18% from last year, while e-book sales doubled their profits. So what does this all mean for the publishing industry? Well it may not be as bleak for the future of print as it seems at first glance.

Are our beloved paperbacks destined to go the way of the record industry? Road kill on the side of the digital super-highway? Like records, delineated to musty basements and yard sales? Part of the rising popularity of e-book readers has to do merely with the allure of a new computer device in a time where the latest and greatest technological products have become the latest toys for adults, with millions scrambling to be the first to own the most current and hippest piece of electronics.

Yet, the strongest factor weighing in against electronic books perhaps is the people’s love for books themselves. Yes, much of the magazine and newspaper business has given way to electronic venues with little to no backlash, but for many people books are different; they are more personal, more sentimental, and leave a longer lasting impression. They can even change a person’s whole outlook on life. As popular as e-books might become there will always be some readers who want the tangible experience of a book.

For some the feel and scent of a paperback will always go hand-in-hand with the experience of connecting with a good story. Perhaps as tactile beings it is just too hard for us to get the sense of immersion and closeness that goes with a great story from a glowing computer screen.

Some might call the lament of paperback readers futile and nostalgic. Some might say you can’t stop the future. Just as oral traditions gave way to the written word, so will the written word give way to the digital realm. But whereas the movement from telling stories to writing them down marked a grand evolution in communication, the wave of technological progress that we are currently experiencing is solely about efficiency and ease of use, not reinventing the wheel so to speak. So it’s hard to forecast exactly what impact this new technology will have on the publishing industry and traditional bookstores. Only time will tell.