Why Print Is Here To Stay (A Not Anti-eBook Op/Ed)

Greg Zimmerman

Staff Writer

Greg Zimmerman blogs about contemporary literary fiction at The New Dork Review of Books and holds down a full-time gig as a trade magazine editor. Follow him on Twitter: @NewDorkReview.

Pop quiz: What percentage of the total book sales market do you think e-books currently comprise?

Is it half e-books? 60 percent? More?

According to this USA Today article from earlier this week, the number is….wait for it…20 percent! 20 percent?!   In case you’re mathletically challenged, that means print still accounts for EIGHTY PERCENT of book sales. Four of every five. I’m not sure about you, but I am absolutely floored by this.

Don’t worry, this isn’t a Luddite-y pro-print post. Nor is it one in which I pretend like I think e-books and e-readers are the greatest thing since Johannes Gutenberg first dumped some ink in a pan. The point is simply this: Despite all we’re hearing about the popularity and explosive growth of e-books, they still have quite a climb before they equal their stitched-and-bound brethren. To me, that is surprising.

You often hear the analogy that e-books are to DVD or CDs as print books are to VHS or cassette tapes, and therefore print will soon disappear as those media did. But that’s not quite right; it’s a faulty analogy. Tapes and VHS went away because they were fundamentally inferior. There were disadvantages qualitywise to listening to tunes or watching movies in those media.

But there is nothing technically inferior about reading print. Sure, you can score points talking about convenience and (usually) price or many of the other ostensible advantages of e-books, but strictly in terms of consuming the medium, reading a print book vs. reading an e-book is nothing like listening to a CD vs. a tape, or watching a VHS vs. DVD. And for that reason — despite the fact that analysts predict the e-book market will surge to $10 billion by 2016, up from $3.2 billion now — print books are here to stay.

Thankfully, e-books vs. print books isn’t an either/or proposition. You don’t have to choose one at the expense of the other. I’m currently reading a 900-page print book (11/22/63) AND an e-book (Jonathan Lethem’s The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfictions, Etc.). And I know a lot of other readers who do similar.

So, yes, at some point in the relatively near future, the e-book/print book pie will probably shift to opposite what it is now…and more. And that’s fine. But let’s be clear: Though brick-and-mortar bookstores might (sadly!) go away sooner rather than later, print is not going the way of the eight-track. Not now. Maybe not even 100 years from now.

I’m interested to hear from you, Book Riot reader. Do you think print will ultimately phase out completely? Why or why not?

Greg Zimmerman is a trade magazine editor and blogs about contemporary literary fiction at The New Dork Review of Books. Follow him on Twitter: @NewDorkReview.