Attention, Tech Geeks: Real Books Aren’t Going Anywhere

It seems like every time I pick up a news magazine or read a financial newsletter, I find some sort of statement about how publishing is doomed and how in the future all information will be stored and communicated digitally. I am ready to concede that certain market segments that have relied on print will probably go entirely or almost entirely digital. The most obvious ones are where authors communicate information that is time sensitive. Newspapers have a huge disadvantage compared to the internet when it comes to updating people on current events. Internet users can get most of this information for free and much sooner than newspaper readers. So it’s not surprising to see that companies like Gannett (publisher of USA Today, or “McNews,” if you prefer) have been experiencing declining circulation and advertising revenue over the last few years and show no sign of recovering from the long-term trend.

Another area where digital trumps print is in market segments where portability is at a premium. Business travelers on cross-country flights can lighten their luggage considerably by carrying on a Kindle or iPad containing their reading material rather than several books. The same goes for families on vacation; if all the stuff I wanted to read over Christmas break were digitized, I could avoid the dirty looks my wife will give me when I throw a bunch of books into the minivan. Traditional publishers are going to have to adjust their business models to reflect these realities if they wish to stay afloat.

Most talk about the “end of print” focuses on the declining profits of traditional book publishers, but as this author points out, lower publishing profits do not necessarily mean that people are not interested in owning books. They could be a reflection of competition among retailers who, like Amazon.com, often insist on big discounts from publishers. And outside the mass-market publishing segment, book publishing is very healthy, particularly in the rapidly growing print-on-demand category.

Publishers like the Ludwig von Mises Institute observe that making a book’s text available online for free actually increases that title’s print sales. Robert Darnton, author of The Case for Books, notes that the number of books in print increases every year. Oxford’s Bodleian Library opened a new storage facility with 153 miles of shelf space last month.

The end of print? I don’t think so.

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About Dr. J

I am Professor of Humanities at Faulkner University, where I chair the Department of Humanities and direct online M.A. and Ph.D. programs based on the Great Books of Western Civilization. I am also Associate Editor of the Journal of Faith and the Academy and a member of the faculty at Liberty Classroom.
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One Response to Attention, Tech Geeks: Real Books Aren’t Going Anywhere

  1. Sig says:

    Baen Books has much of their catalog available for free online. First, they have the Baen Free Library, which offers a wide variety of books from their A-list authors and some that are less well-known; often, the first book or two of a series will be available for free. Many of their new hardcovers (especially for series books) include a CD-ROM with the entire series available electronically, along with other works by the same author. Almost all of their works are available for sale in a variety of digital formats as well–none of which have any digital rights management (DRM). Additionally, the CD-ROMs can be freely copied and distributed so long as no money changes hands; some kind souls maintain online archives of the entire collection.

    Personally, I’ve spent several hundred dollars on their books over the last decade that I almost certainly would not have, otherwise.

    In part, this is because I belong to another small niche market that desperately needs e-books. When you are already carrying 100+ pounds of armor, weapons, ammunition, water, and equipment to a helicopter at a dead run in the middle of the night and you don’t know when you’ll see civilization again, the ability to keep a few dozen books on a small (hopefully sturdy) electronic device tucked in your bag is priceless beyond measure. The choice is not between paper or electronic; it’s between electronic and nothing.

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