The early 2000s saw revolutions in several technologies. There was the rapid expansion of internet access, the development of eInk and ePaper, and the rise of self-publishing tools such as blogging (WordPress, Blogger, and now OnlyFans and Patreon).
This perfect storm of technological advancements was supposed to be sounding the death knell for the publishing industry. Now that we’ve had eReaders like the Kindle, the Kobo, the nook, and even apps for our iPads and other phones for fifteen years, we’re all supposed to be reading everything electronically, instantly, wherever we go.
Books are supposed to be dead. Dead as the trees that make them. Deader than doornails. The publishing industry is supposed to be gutted, relegated to a slag-heap of has-been technologies like horse-draw carriages and the telegraph.
Yet books persist. Libraries still exist. People still read: old people, middle-agers like me, and even younger generations still read. They pick up two covers with a few hundred pages in between, sit down and stare in the general direction of their crotch for a few minutes or an hour, and then get up and go on their way.
Books are clearly not dead. Publishing is not dead. Books and eReaders and online blogs have somehow managed to find a sort of equilibrium of market share, wherein some people read only physical books, some read both physical and electronic (and audio) books, and some don’t read at all. But eBooks have clearly not eviscerated the market for paper books, much to the surprise of all those circa-2005 prognosticators.
Everybody’s got their own theories as to why publishing and books just won’t die. The cynics say it’s because there’s so much money invested in advertising that we just can’t help ourselves but to buy books. Others say it’s because we’re too old and set in our ways that we can’t adapt to the newer ways of life that would be better for us (more convenient! cheaper! faster!).
I don’t think those are the only reasons. I think there are several forces underlying our continued engagement with dead trees. Here are a few.
Books are tangible things. eBooks are not.
Sure, an eReader is itself tangible. But the book is a physical object. When you pick it up, you feel the weight and heft of it. You touch its pages. You smell the aroma of the ink, the faint tinge of memory that lingers on the pages. It’s something.
eBooks on your reader, on the other hand, are very fragile. Nebulous. They can come, and therefore go, with just a click. It’s almost like they’re not really there. When you have 1,000 books on your bookshelf, you can humblebrag to your neighbors about how hard it was to move last time, when in reality you’re swelling with pride that you’re so smart that you’ve read some of the titles that are on your shelf! When you have 1,000 eBooks, nobody knows. They’re all within that little half-inch slab on your desk, and you’ve got to do a hell of a lot more work to brag about that.
With a book, you can physically see and feel your progress through the experience. Your bookmark travels with you as you navigate the story. As you notice the end approaching, it’s unignorable how much is left because of how little is held in one hand and how much is in the other, and you can do the internal math to say, “Hey, this story isn’t going to finish in these pages,” or “Oh good! I’m almost done!” Can’t do that with eBooks. Sure, there’s that little slider sometimes at the bottom of the page or the side of the screen, but it’s not the same. You can see it, but you can’t feel it.
Books are real. eBooks just aren’t.
Books are permanent. eBooks are ephemeral and fleeting.
When you have a book on your shelf, it’s not going to change next week, next month, or next year, when the author suddenly gets cancelled for things she said twenty years ago. eBooks, blogs, tweets, and other “new media” are quite vulnerable to the tides of social sentiment, in several directions. Someone doesn’t approve of a chapter? Maybe it gets deleted or changed! Other people have asked for more on a certain topic? Well, just hit [update post] and now we’re exploiting the algorithms even more efficiently!
Books don’t have that vulnerability to changing externality. (Unless you’re in Oceania, of course.) They are what they were when they were printed, nothing more, nothing less. Yes, interpretations may change over time, but at least we have some permanent record of what was posited, and when, so that we can always have a fixed reference point to come back to.
That sort of permanence of idea means we don’t have to question what the author really thinks. We can just look at her words, and know.
Books are robust. eBooks are vulnerable.
In complement to the contents of our books being consistent, the physical thing of a book is also persistent. I can go to my library and read the exact same thing that my neighbor did a week ago, or the Mayor did a month ago, or my grandmother did fifty years ago. Physical books deliver a communal experience spanning space and time that you don’t get with eBooks. An eBook is a singular thing, a one-off instance, that disappears as soon as it is deleted. And it requires an external, electrical source to be able to access it. Sure, the content may be recreated, but it’s not the same thing. It’s a different thing. It didn’t exist before, and it won’t persist after you’re gone.
You can’t write a note in the margin or on a cover of an eBook that can be discovered by future generations and relate to. You can’t take an eBook with you on a hike on the Ozark Trail and trade it with someone you meet along the way, mingling ideas and their expression for a whole-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts experience that parallels how swapping DNA beyond a limited gene pool benefits future generations.
In short, eBooks are for the right here, right now experience. If you want to have any kind of relationship with your ancestors, or your descendants, in your own family, tribe, nation, or even across the world, you’ll read books and you will tell others about that experience. You will listen as others tell you of their reading, and you will commune with them when your fingertips touch the pages that theirs did not that long ago.
And these are all good reasons that books will stick around. The biggest, though, may have to do with signaling.
Physical book publishing send a vastly stronger signal than eBook publishing.
Publishing a physical book requires vastly more investment than publishing an eBook. With both, it starts with writing up a manuscript. The similarities end there.
If you’re publishing a physical book, there are many next steps: finding a publishing company, which may take finding an agent or going through the never-ending saga of queries and rejections; editing; typesetting; cover design; interior design; paper selection; print schedule; marketing plan; and more.
It can be anywhere from a few months to a few years from the time the author types THE END to the day that a reader first sets eyes up Once upon a time…
For the eBook, though, it’s almost nothing. They can push [PUBLISH] and it’s done, whether that’s hosted on their own website or even a marketplace. There’s very little barrier to entry.
And yes, I know that many well-produced eBooks are clones of the physically-printed books. The publishers do all the work up front for the physical book, and then just port it over to eBook format.
See, the thing is, readers aren’t stupid. They know that there’s such a low bar for many eBooks that they lump those well-produced volumes in with the slipshod ones, and taint the whole format with their simplicity.
I don’t mind. It creates, in the mind of the reader, a much higher barrier to entry to be able to publish a physical book than an electronic one. Which means that the readers care much more about physical books than electronic books. They know the signal that publishing a physical book sends, and they respect that commitment to the cause.
Because they also know, even if it’s only subconsciously, that the author must have a stronger conviction of their message, if they’re willing to go through all that effort for something that cannot be changed later, cannot be rescinded, and will potentially (hopefully!) last for hundreds or thousands of years. The author’s belief, and the parallel commitment from the publisher, signal to the reader that, “Hey, this is something you really should pay attention to.”
Yes, some of that higher barrier to entry is being lowered every day, through print-on-demand capabilities, freelance cover and interior design, and the opportunity to self-promote through social media. Instead of reducing the signal for physical books, I think such ease of use contributes to the greater differential signal between externally-published and self-published volumes.
The vast outweighing of signals between physical books and eBooks persists. I’m confident that physical books will never go away, because readers don’t want them to. They want someone to be able to sort through all the multitude of potential messages on their behalf and tell them which ones are more likely to be good. That’s what the physical book does. That’s why we will continue to see them as so valuable. That’s why we’ll never, ever, ever give them up. And that’s why, in a hundred years, physical books are likely to echo Mark Twain’s apt quote:
The rumors of my demise have been greatly exaggerated.The Hardcover, the Paperback, and Mark Twain