A few years later I found this article on Salon that talked about printed books as luxury items. My dystopia! The author cited a New York Times piece, which reported that ebooks were being refined down to the basics of print books—no more comments, hyperlinks, and multimedia. The new, restrained ebook now focused on text and included appropriate graphics and appropriate hyperlinks, often confined to the back matter. In other words, the ebook was becoming more book-like. In contrast, physical books were becoming complicated, expensively produced objects of aesthetic pleasure.
Some years back, when ebooks were a dim shape on the horizon and print-on-demand was just becoming known (but mostly for poor quality), I feared that this would be the future of book publishing: Ebooks would become ubiquitous, inexpensive, and the first option for most readers. Paperbacks would rarely be printed, and when printed, done as cheaply as possible to satisfy the few who still wanted a printed book but didn’t want to have to pay for it. Hardcovers, on the other hand, would go high-class, with specialty papers and inks and bindings, becoming lavish-looking books that even technophiles would want to have on a bookshelf—with a cover price to match.
All this, it was contended, would lead the reader to a purchasing decision: Is this a book I want to read or a book I want to own? The book you want to own is in print; it is sumptuous, if not fetishistic. At the very least it feels good in your hands. The book you want to read is an ebook. You do not wish, for whatever reason, to display this book on your bookshelf.
So now we come to the beginning of 2016, and what has happened to the printed book? Has it drowned in the digital sea?
The trend toward digital and ebooks is definitely still in play, but, in our experience at Infusionmedia and from what we read in the industry, printed books have not become a luxury. They are, in fact, still very much a necessity.
Paperbacks are widely printed. With a few exceptions, hardcovers are not overtly lavish and are still common, especially for first runs. As for going digital, many indie authors are publishing ebooks, as are traditional publishers, but they are not taking over the market. This mirrors what we’ve been doing these last five years, though many authors choose to do print and digital, often a paperback accompanied by an ebook.
In our world, the revolution hasn’t been in ebooks; it’s been in the increasing quality of print-on-demand and the ease of updating, revising, and ordering on-demand books. Not to mention the ability to be a part of a large distribution network without much additional effort.
Thankfully, ebooks haven’t taken over as I feared they would; “luxury books” are not predominant for physical books; and the old standby, the paperback, is thriving.
Studies show that many people consider reading a printed book a better experience than reading on a screen. College students are a surprising demographic that prefer to have their textbooks in print, even though the textbook industry is rapidly moving to digital books.
For professionals who write books as educational and marketing tools, there is no comparison to the experience of handing someone a physical book. Saying “I’ll email you a link to that ebook” just doesn’t have the same impact.
I think there is an important factor at work here: We, as a society and culture, still love our printed books. Whether they’re leather-bound signed first editions with custom endsheets and embossing or a simple paperback with a great cover.
Otherwise, our studio would have been developing a lot more ebooks these last few years.