Jumping the Shark: How the Print Book is clinging to Life in a Digital World

Alison K. Lanier

We’ve heard again and again that paper books are on their way out. They are doomed to fail, environmentally destructive, inefficient, and too expensive. Yet paper books still abound, skipping right over the disastrous dive into digital oblivion that the media has repeatedly predicted.

What’s made books so resilient to their less expensive, more-green digital successors? Could it be the millennia of history behind the printed form, the nostalgic comfort of a library, or the sense of substance that comes along with a solid, printed text? As a book conservator, I say, all of the above. Neuroscience offers other, more verifiable answers. The effects of reading a digital text, as opposed to a printed one, offers more marked differentiators—or at least perceived differentiators— between the experiences of reading off a screen versus the good, old-fashioned way.

Shifting Trends

In 2012, CNET painted a picture of the colluding among digital publishers to raise prices among e-books. “They’re only saving a few dollars per copy in the switch to the e-book world, but the prices of books were slashed more than half, from $24.99 to $9.99 and even lower,” according to CNET. “That begins to explain why publishers are trying to keep e-book prices high. But it doesn’t tell the whole story.”

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Credit: freedigitalphotos.net Stoonn

According to CNET, Amazon accepted a loss to sell their digital books, with the goal of building up an early marketplace and to popularizing the Kindle. Then, through a shift in the pricing model, the publishers began to set the market price, with the fallout that e-book prices went up.

Another strong point: publishers—established, print publishers—are simply the best, time-tested model for getting a new release from manuscript to product. Marketing, editing, literary agents—all are tied up with the major print publishers. I know from experience that all it takes is a willingness to spend the money and an ISBN to self-publish. 2010 was the first year that the number of self-published books through avenues like Smashwords outnumbered those published through conventional agent-publisher-marketing avenues.

The Best Quality versus the Easiest Avenues

The process of going through a major publisher is the best medium for quality control and for the content of the text itself. E-book publication can be as simple as an ISBN, a Word document manuscript, and a free afternoon in which to upload it to Amazon or Smashwords. There is no editor, and no quality control. One quick Google search, and a whole host of digital self-publishing options appear. At the top of the list is Amazon, predictably, with “Publish your book affordably on Amazon’s Kindle, Apple’s iPad and more! It’s just $99 dollars for worldwide e-book distribution!”

A powerful motivator for keeping conventional print publishing alive is the sense of a polished, sellable product. A publication that becomes increasingly, alarmingly akin to paid file sharing through digital media. Self-publishing, substantial within the digital mass of e-book publishing, simply does not create the same kind of product or the same kind of substantial value that the big print publishers do.

E-books have not continued their exponential growth, wrote the Idea Logical Company, defying that initial, idealizing logic of cheap, accessible digital books floating in the Internet ether. In 2012, an executive model that showed about 30 percent e-book sales out of total sales in the “Big Six” publishers, but that the rate of increase in e-book sales had been cut in half since 2011.

Initial Rush and Shifting Behaviors

Whether the first-off-the-mark enthusiasm or novelty behind the e-book craze slowed, or if the nifty little e-book readers became increasingly synonymous with tablets and thus less and less affordable, e-books occupy a significant chunk—but not a lethal chunk—of publishing territory. The digital monopoly is not gaining ground at the same alarming rate that led to so many dooms-day presentiments for the print book.

More and more, e-books are becoming a duplicate publication put out by publishing houses, rather than strict alternatives to the printed products. In that way, e-books could be thought of, rather than a rival to the printed publishing industry, a support. Consumers use e-books to get new releases instantaneously—but they also tend to buy the material texts for sentimental reasons. Although e-book textbooks are generally much, much cheaper than material text books and more immediately available for students, for instance, printed textbooks are still a common and required sight in many high school and college classrooms.

Neuroscience and Deep Reading

Looking for a reason behind this insistence on the printed study material, it’s useful to look for the material difference in how we read from page or screen. It is, practically, the same content, the same written language. Scientific American sums up the perceived distinctions in an article from August 2013.

“Before 1992 most studies concluded that people read slower, less accurately and less comprehensively on screens than on paper. Studies published since the early 1990s, however, have produced more inconsistent results: a slight majority has confirmed earlier conclusions, but almost as many have found few significant differences in reading speed or comprehension between paper and screens,” according to the Scientific American. “And recent surveys suggest that although most people still prefer paper—especially when reading intensively—attitudes are changing as tablets and e-reading technology improve and reading digital books for facts and fun becomes more common.”

Even if the theory that deep-reading and study are easier in a physically printed text, or that screens decrease attentiveness, the perception that they do influence the behavior of the readers in which reading sources they pursue. And while the decisive facts of the matter remain unconfirmed, the sense of substantiality that comes from a print book will hold onto reader sentiment and attention.

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