E-Books Flatline; Books (Paper) Return Like Zombies

As the Web was becoming ubiquitous in the early haze of the 21st century the wonders of Google search displaced Altavista and other engines in the search wars. Web wags declared that the age of books, actually all paper-based media, to be over. The Web would quickly provide universal access to all of human knowledge on your computer. This even before the iPhone and Android brought the Internet to our hand and thumbs. Amazon and Apple launched their tablet reading devices, Kindle and iPad. Others followed. The numbers are truly amazing. Over 2 billion tablet computers were sold between 2010 and today. The sale of e-books rose enormously.

On the way to the funeral books proved to be the zombies of the paper media world. Newspapers and magazines have continued to decline. Their readers and the advertising dollars that sought them moved to the Web. Books have rebounded with reports of sales rising, particular paperback books. Significantly younger readers have lead this trend. A current Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Technology report, Book Reading 2016, by Andrew Perrin summarizes these trends as:

A growing share of Americans are reading e-books on tablets and smartphones rather than dedicated e-readers, but print books remain much more popular than books in digital formats.

PEW graphic on book reading vs e-books

Locally, the Hudson Area Library has seen continuing increases in book circulation year over year for more than five years. 27% in aggregate. Perhaps not coincidentally, the book collection has grown by approximately 20% over this same period.

Why are books continuing to be the dominant reading format? The Huffington Post offered up, “Sorry, Ebooks. These 9 Studies Show Why Print Is Better” by Maddie Crum (2/27/2015). Among the reasons discussed is that books offer a reading experience that is more concentrated and focused. No book offers the pop up notifications of the latest text messages, Facebook Likes and the rest of the interruptions so common to the digital world. For a more rigorous exploration of the whys here Scientific American delved into this question in the 2013 article by Ferris Jabr, “The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens“. Among the findings are the very physical, tactile experience books provide. When you open a book there are two pages displayed, eight corners. The format provides visual cues about where you are in the book. These features lead to some people, including the author, being able to recall where on a page, a piece of information is located. Then, there is the ease of flipping around in the book.

When I pick up a book, I look at the Table of Contents, then flip to the back to look at the Notes or Bibliography to find out who the author has read, then I progress to the Introduction. At this point I decide whether I will read the whole book or just parts intensively with a skimming of other portions. Sometimes I decide to put the book down. While I am reading I make notes in the margins, put stars next to things that are new or important, so I can later flip back to find them.  I frequently thumb back to the Notes and Bibliography to check out the references. None of these activities are easy or even possible to do in an e-book.

MMO's desk

Mark’s desk

Then there are the books on the bookshelf. I have plenty of files on my computer that are reasonably well organized into folders and sub-folders. But there is no equivalent for my visual memory of the purple and white binding of Charles Kindleberger’s Manias, Panics and Crashes: a history of financial crises, a book that I refer to fairly often.Kindleberger, Manias, Panics and Crashes

Another aspect of the digital world that is not mentioned often during discussion of books vs e-books is the relative robustness of the storage methods. Books, kept safe from fire and water, will last for hundreds of years. One can readily pick up a book published in 1700 and read it. The language will doubtless seem a bit stilted, the spelling strange not to mention the punctuation, but you will be able to read it.

There are no digital formats that are in widespread use today that are older than 25 years. Plenty have come and gone within a few years. Then there are the physical storage devices themselves. Hard drives, even the best, will only work for three or four years. They all fail. This has lead to an extensive system of back ups further protected by geographically separated duplicates of everything in the cloud. Even at the home office or small business level it is common to have hard drives that are swapped out regularly with one connected to the computer network while the other is stored in a remote location. Most of these installations are redundant to a system of automated backup to hard drives in the cloud. Don’t think that optical disks, CDs and DVDs, are permanent. Some manufacturers claim over 100 years. The Library of Congress suggests 30 years to be more reasonable expectation.

All of this suggests that paper will continue to be a robust and reader friendly platform for a while longer.