It’s 2015, or, if you prefer: 8 A.K. — After Kindle. That device was supposed to bring about the end of physical books. Not immediately, of course. But eventually. And yet here we are, 8 years later, and not only are physical books not going away, by some measures, the opposite may be happening.
As an article this week by Alexandra Alter for The New York Times notes:
While analysts once predicted that e-books would overtake print by 2015, digital sales have instead slowed sharply.
Now, there are signs that some e-book adopters are returning to print, or becoming hybrid readers, who juggle devices and paper. E-book sales fell by 10 percent in the first five months of this year, according to the Association of American Publishers, which collects data from nearly 1,200 publishers. Digital books accounted last year for around 20 percent of the market, roughly the same as they did a few years ago.
But I wonder if there’s not something else, something bigger, going on here.
While the Kindle was supposed to be the harbinger of the end of print, the iPad (and the other tablets that followed) were supposed to be the stake in its heart. If both of those forces plus smartphones (which, just by virtue of their immense scale, are likely the biggest digital “readers” of the bunch), haven’t killed off physical books, maybe they’re never going to die. And maybe, just maybe, the 20 percent plateau for ebooks is just the new normal.
What if books, unlike various physical forms of music or movies, are the medium that weathers the digital onslaught?
One of the hot stories the past couple of years has been the resurgence of vinyl records in the age of not only digital music, but streaming music, where everyone has access to basically every song ever recorded in their pocket. While interesting, this is still really just a blip. It’s mostly a trendamong hipsters or those who are nostalgic (I’m including in that latter bucket those who still insist that vinyl just sounds better). I think the steadfastness of physical books is far more interesting and meaningful.
I wonder if it points to a world in which people long for something tangible as we increasingly drown in digital bits. Maybe not everyone wants to read a book on the same device on which they check Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, listen to music, order Ubers, play Candy Crush, etc.
At first, I thought a large part of the endurance of print had just as much to do with art. That is, people who buy physical book simply to put them on their physical bookshelf to “show off” what they’re reading when people come to visit. And books, like vinyl, do look great. The same, obviously, is not true with CDs. Or, god forbid, cassette tapes.
But the more cafes I visit around the world, even in 2015, the more I see people carrying around these pieces of art with weathered edges. It’s as if they’re using these books! And, at the risk of sounding mildly like a luddite, I think I understand.
I read all books on my Kindle, but I increasingly find myself longing to visit bookstores. The other day, I did a search for the best bookstores in San Francisco and was shocked to find that there really isn’t a big bookstore left in the city. This had me worried, but going back to that NYT article:
The surprising resilience of print has provided a lift to many booksellers. Independent bookstores, which were battered by the recession and competition from Amazon, are showing strong signs of resurgence. The American Booksellers Association counted 1,712 member stores in 2,227 locations in 2015, up from 1,410 in 1,660 locations five years ago.
Sure enough, while San Francisco is no longer home to any large bookstores, such as the chains like Barnes & Noble and Borders that I grew up with, there are plenty of independent stores. In perhaps the ultimate moment of ironic justice, Amazon has all-but killed off the chains that once all-but killed off the independent stores.
It’s like a big fish coming into new waters and eating all the food the little fish used to eat — and then a shark coming in and eating the bigger fish.
And those smaller stores are seemingly faring very well against Amazon. Their “weaknesses”: small selections, niche dedication, and physical spaces, have actually turned out to be strengths against “The Everything Store.”
Plus, it’s great to hang out at bookstores — especially if they’re a part of a community. It’s not great to “hang out” on Amazon.com. Not even on your phone or tablet or Kindle.
If you ever happen to be in London, go to Daunt Books and hang around for an hour. I dare you to not feel the urge to read something great — or even towrite something great. This is something intangible that I don’t believe the digital world will ever re-create. Yet it’s something we long for. And I think this points directly to why physical books aren’t going away. And won’t.