The Threat to Printed Books
“Time Enough at Last” episode of The Twilight Zone, 1959
From Dublin Review of Books:
One would like to be as cheerful as this about the future of the printed book, or even the book, but the analogy with newspapers, which each year continue to record further steep declines in sales, leading to the extinction of many venerable titles, does not give us great reason for optimism. True, the analogy is not a complete or perfect one, but it does still provide us with the example of a communication technology which a generation ago we were inclined to think would last forever and which we now think will last for – well, five or six years would be good.
The threat to printed books would seem to come from a number of quarters: first, from the arrival of a new and supposedly superior technology which is cheaper, more convenient and less cumbersome; second, from far-reaching changes in the distribution network which are placing traditional sellers of books in increasing difficulty; third, from major developments in the overall patterns of consumption of knowledge, information, culture and entertainment. These factors cannot be considered in isolation, since they all feed into each other.
First, the arrival of the e-reader and the e-book. Sales of e-readers rose steeply from one million units worldwide in 2008 to twenty-three million in 2011; since then they have declined steadily in each year, a decline that is projected to continue (source: statista, The Statistics Portal). This could well be due to the market approaching saturation: in 2010, only five per cent of Americans owned an e-reader; today the figure is thirty-two per cent. Reliable figures on sales of e-books are difficult to come by, but from 2011 to 2012 the percentage of people reading books online in the United States jumped from sixteen to twenty-three. Total US book sales in 2013 amounted to almost fifteen billion dollars, a fourteen per cent increase over five years. But without the contribution of e-books there would have been an eight per cent decline (source: vox.com, June 27th, 2014).
The arrival of a new technology does not necessarily mean the immediate departure of the old (to which it is reckoned to be superior). One of the most beautiful manuscripts in the history of European book production – though perhaps, as Calvino might say, a book made for purposes other than reading ‑ was the edition of the Roman de la Rose made in Bruges around 1500 by the Burgundian artist known as “the Master of the Prayer Books”, that is fifty years after Gutenberg. As to whether the e-book is a superior technology, this must remain a matter of opinion. Much was made on its first appearance of its supposed virtues of relative lightness: you can pack twelve or twenty novels with you going on holiday (but do you really want to?) and the possibility of instant purchase gratification (a habit which could be bad for your wealth). Some persist in the belief that the codex, that is the book whose pages we turn, has yet to be surpassed as a technology or as an aesthetic object, particularly when it is well made, like an old Penguin or Pelican or the standard French livre de poche of today, fitting snugly in one’s hand or in a jacket pocket, pleasantly bendable, smelling perhaps a little of paper and ink and glue and with a spine which does not crack.
But the aesthetic appeal of the book alone will not safeguard its future if too many other factors are stacked against it. Since the stationer/booksellers of Bologna and Padua copied out their peciae to sell to students in the thirteenth century the book trade has been both largely motivated by and underwritten by commerce, which is to say that if the commercial basis which props it up ceases to exist, it will cease to exist, at least in its current form. As most people know, there has been a fairly stark development in the retail book trade over the last decade or two, more pronounced (or earlier) in the United States as these things generally are. In brief, what has happened is that first the chain bookstores came for the independents, then Amazon came for the chain bookstores. Closures of bookshops of all kinds have followed as for example city centre shops find they cannot compete with Amazon (which is to say their customers desert them) either on the price they can buy (and therefore sell) their stock for or on the rentals they must pay for premises. It could be argued that in the long term none of this will matter very much: we can still buy books and (for the moment) cheaply too. But if bookshops disappear completely we will no longer be able to see before we buy; we will no longer “browse”; we will no longer have easy access to ten thousand or one hundred thousand books in one place and a staff which knows what they are. It might also be speculated that Amazon, given its recent troubling tendency to bully publishers and dictate the terms of trade, may not feel bound (duty to its shareholders and all that) to keep book prices low forever once the competition has been seen off. And how long then will the book last, or what, somewhat less accessible, form will it take?
The third factor which may impinge on the future of the book is the rapid pace of change in the overall pattern of consumption of culture and the increasing obtrusion of a partially self-operated technology into that consumption. Anyone who has been around for a few generations, or who has an interest in the experience of previous generations, will have noticed quite significant changes in how people consume culture and how they talk about it. Frequently a person born in Ireland in the 1930s or 1940s will address the subject of books first by talking about censorship: what we wanted to read, what we’d heard about but could not get, or could get by devious or roundabout means. For the next generation, perhaps a common experience may have been the discovery of the world, through American Jewish fiction of the mid-century period or French or Italian cinema. It is my impression – and of course it’s only an impression ‑ in meeting many people born in the 1970s and 80s, and in particular men, that books do not particularly paddle their canoe at all. This is not to say that they never read, but the book is less central in their world as a source of value than is film, or comedy/humour, or well-crafted (usually American) television fiction (newspapers tend to do nothing for them either). For generations younger still, technology seems to loom ever larger. We do not consume films or music in the same way as we did two years ago and it is a fair bet that we will not be consuming them in the same way two years hence. In this tech-guided cultural vista there is a great premium on being savvy, being adaptable, being fast (not to mention being affluent enough to keep buying). It would be very surprising if there was not a resultant valuing of, or at the least interest in, the mechanism/s above the message. In this world the codex would seem to have little to offer: how many things can you actually do with Pride and Prejudice apart from read it? Can you see the lush green of the gardens of Pemberley, the red of the soldiers’coats? Can we make Kitty cough and Mrs Bennet squawk? The sad answer is that someone in Seattle is probably already working hard to ensure that we can.