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Fate of the Book

Before embarking on this blog post, let me first explain a few things: I am a physical bookseller. I have a vested interest in the ongoing relevance of physical books in society. Without physical books, my bookselling business is kaput.

On a personal level, I love reading physical books. I love the tactile feel of the pages. I love curling up on a couch next to a raging fire with a good book on a cold winter’s day. I am a regular library user. I love the dog-eared corners, the notes made in the margins, the fact that a full bookshelf is somehow indicative of my personality and my past. I love browsing the shelves in bookstores. I love that my wife has colour-coded the spines on our home bookshelf. I love the smell of books.

These are all common arguments for the perpetuity of that wonderful thing called the ‘book‘.

The problem is: the average 17-year old couldn’t give a toss about most of those things. They live their lives through their mobile devices. They consume content – news, video, music, social media – through their mobile devices. And they read books on their mobile devices.

Given the choice between a physical book and a smartphone, which do you reckon a Gen Y will reach for?

As those young whippersnappers grow up and move through the age brackets, what becomes of the humble book? Will it become an anachronism like other forms of physical media: the floppy disk, the video tape, the cassette, the CD, the magazine, the newspaper?

To those who argue: ‘there has been a levelling off of eBook adoption and the physical book has won’, I say that this is only a temporary situation. eBook technology will get better, the market with shift, traditionalists will die off, and new digital citizens – some of whom haven’t picked up a physical book since school – will take their place.

The physical book will be with us for some time yet, but its fate has already been sealed, sad as it may be.

I hope I’m wrong.

4 thoughts on “The Fate of the Book”

  1. I agree that this will definitely end up being the fate of the novel and textbooks (and I sincerely hope we are both wrong about that too) but I think there will still be a place in the children’s market for the foreseeable future. Learning to read, spell, and comprehend what you are reading has so many literacy developmental stages and physical books support this so much better in ways electronic books do not, at least in the very young years. So perhaps if those young children are still exposed to traditional mediums like hard copy picture books, they will carry with them a sense of nostalgia about them into their adult years and maybe,…just maybe…they will enjoy a paperback novel??

  2. I think what will really challenge books is when the “replacement” has demonstrably greater value. All of us above a certain age recall having a “street directory” in our cars to help us find our way around. We’d have to periodically pull over to the side of the road to read the map and work out when our next turn was. The advent of a GPS is both a map, but also a built in navigator – put in your final destination & the system will calculate a route and then talk to you as you drive.

    As e-books begin to add features to make the book even more useful/engaging or whatever the appeal will be too great to resist.

    Having said that, I don’t think it is an either/or for print or e content. Both will co-exist for years to come, with us working out which is the best medium for different content.

  3. A colleague of mine had this to say about my post:

    First, the school-aged generation is being pushed into using electronic textbooks by the institutions, and to some extent the response to that by educational publishers. Some interactive educational activities work well online, but virtually every student – particularly at VCE and University level – prefers to lay out their books in front of them; annotate as required … But pricing is working against them, and in some cases they are not even being given a physical book option.

    I think there is a serious challenge for people’s ‘entertainment’ time. That is not a question of reading online vs physical books, but reading physical books vs Facebooking, Instagram, computer games …

    The younger people who read books for pleasure still largely prefer the experience of the physical book; and it is also a break from the ubiquitous online experience they have with study, games, communication.

    There is a reason that the physical book as a piece of ‘technology’ has prospered for more than 600 years (since Gutenberg). It’s ease of use, accessibility, portability.

    All good points – although in relation to the last paragraph, I would argue that the book hasn’t been challenged with a direct alternative for the past 600 years, as it has now with the eBook. Also, the rate of societal and technological change is no longer linear, as it has been for a long time; it’s exponential. So the point about the book being the dominant technology for the past 600 years doesn’t necessarily mean that it will endure for another 600. Loving the discussion!

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