Don’t believe the hype – paper is on the way out

Don_Quijote_and_Sancho_PanzaPaper books are not coming back. Face it.

A couple of the days ago the Sydney Morning Herald published an article saying that there was a resurgence in people buying paper books. “Books. Remember them? The big lumps of wood pulp that used to clog up your shelves? Well, they’re back, and hotter than vinyl records.”

The focus on books was part of a longer piece arguing that vinyl records were coming back, as were old basic phones, even typewriters.

The problem with this paean to things past, is that it’s just not right. No matter how much some people may yearn for the tactile pleasures they were brought up on and stand Canute-like in the face of change, the reality is that the world has changed and is continuing to change.  And while at one level it’s not surprising to see the heads of the major book-retailers crowing about a slowing in ebook sales, it’s frankly fatuous to suggest that that’s indicative of a turnaround in the trend towards ebooks. If it’s indicative of anything it is that certain books don’t lend themselves well to an electronic format yet – and that applies especially to childrens books and the larger format books, like cook books, we buy as Christmas presents.

The Herald’s writer comes up with a different explanation: “Happily, the e-book pioneers forgot something important. There are some things technology cannot replace, and readers began to realise that a proper book possessed something akin to a soul.” Rubbish. I love a good book, I love the feel and the smell. But I buy books for the story, for the information, for the content. And more than the format, I love being able to buy the book cheaply, I love being able to buy it from anywhere, and I love being able to carry my entire library with me. And that’s just with these early generations of ebook technology. Add on another 10 years and think where we’ll be.

There will always be people who want paper books. There are people today who lovingly restore steam engines. But to confuse a low level of underlying demand, or demand today in the context of a new technology, for a long-term trend is foolish. We are only a few years into the most significant change to hit publishing in centuries and short of being hit by the zombie apocolypse there is nothing to suggest that what we’re just seeing isn’t the beginning of a tidal wave of change.

The real flaw in this edge-of-Luddite type argument is its target. People present this as a battle between paper books and ebooks – and that very characterisation reveals how out-of-touch the people writing this stuff are. The danger isn’t ebooks taking over from paper books, the danger is that people give up reading at all in favour of podcasts, YouTube summaries, Audible versions, and the myriad of other competing media that are being thrown up by the new technologies.

There is simply no way to save the paper book as a mainstream medium in the long-term – that’s a solid windmill you’re riding towards if you think you are the paper-format’s knight in shining armour. What’s important is that people read, that they appreciate good and great literature, that they read for enjoyment and for information – that’s the important thing. And that’s a war worth waging.

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