Ever since the first monk cobbled together a series of wax tablets into a portable collection of reading material, books have played an invaluable role in the development of mankind. Movable type, scrolls and leaflets, and the eventual development and dissemination of bound editions to the masses all mark the ways in which the printed word has moved humanity forward.
Despite this, people seem to think that recent innovations in e-reading technology will somehow kill off a cultural artifact that’s been around for thousands of years. I’d hate to break it to the starry-eyed technologists and futurists, but five years of increased digital sales is nothing compared to two thousand years of book production.
True, the publishing industry as we know it is changing. The traditional model of book-buying has been updated for a more mobile, technologically equipped society. Ardent readers get much more value out of being able to access a library via their iPad, Kindle, smartphone or any of the other myriad devices capable of acquiring and presenting books to consumers. What few advocates for the “future” of reading fail to acknowledge is that people are still buying books: used books, paperbacks, and hardcovers. The ascendance of technology isn’t so much cannibalizing hard copy print as much as it is supplementing it.
Kindle owners are quick to laud the device’s ability to pull a high-profile book, say Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, or Chuck Palahniuk’s Damned, out of the ether and into their device for immediate reading, and for less than the cost of the actual copy. And there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s a great application of tech to readers who can’t be bothered to wait until they get to some bookseller to shell out dough and read a novel. This isn’t an indication of the decline of physical books; it’s simply the type of world we are accustomed to.
Last month I attended a book reading and while I was there guess what I did? I bought a book! You know what I did after that? I got it signed! I know it’s crazy for some people to imagine, but there is still a real and valuable place for books.
The upside is that by all accounts, people seem to be reading more. Between the unilaterally low prices of eBooks compared to hardbacks, the proliferating of web coupons driving the price down further and the manifold distribution channels that exist with Amazon, Google, Barnes & Noble, and every retailer ever, technology has made it easier than ever for people to read, and you definitely can’t knock that.
The main benefits of eBooks are in their portability and price. But to say that eBooks are driving hardcover books to extinction is not only shortsighted in both directions, it also implies that the only value/pleasure in books comes from reading. People still collect books. First editions are still valuable to those collectors. A few people with foresight realize that in ten years a physical copy of a book is going to be worth more than a 13,421kb file on an archaic Nook. eBooks are super convenient, but ultimately immaterial.
Coincidentally, it may be that sense of immateriality that drives continued physical book sales. Let’s look at another popular media: music. The rise of the MP3 considerably lowered the price of music and paved the way for online megastores like iTunes and devices like iPods to hold court over music. But 10 years after Napster dismantled the music industry as we know it, we’re still buying CDs. Hell, we’re still buying vinyl albums because they are the exact opposite of MP3s: the ethereal, intangible, yet convenient digital format. Vinyl albums are giant, bold and can be held in your hands. Much like a hardcover book. And for my part, I can guarantee they’re not going anywhere.