Will e-books completely replace printed books? In the Wall Street Journal this morning, Nicholas Carr argues that they won’t. He notes that the growth of e-books slowed to 34% in 2012. Granted, some CEOs would sell their souls for a 34% growth rate. Sales of e-books, furthermore, have surpassed sales of hardcover books and are treading on the toes of paperbacks. But Carr also cites a survey that found that 59% of adults have “no interest” in buying an e-reader. His explanation:
Readers of weightier fare, including literary fiction and narrative nonfiction, have been less inclined to go digital. They seem to prefer the heft and durability, the tactile pleasures, of what we still call ‘real books’ — the kind you can set on a shelf.
There are two reasons I believe he’s wrong.
First, it is entirely common for an old industry to last for years — sometimes decades — after the invention of a new technology that will ultimately displace it. James Utterback cites numerous examples in his classic book, Mastering the Dynamics of Innovation. The gas lighting industry hung on and even reached new peaks of innovation in the years after Edison commercialized his electric lighting system. Similarly, the original ice companies, which harvested their product from New England lakes and ponds, actually reached sales peaks after mechanical ice-makers began their ascent. In both cases, fans of the old technology likely wrote whimsical editorials about the tactile pleasures of old-fashioned methods.
Second, young people simply don’t have the same attachment to printed books. People who grew up reading printed books will naturally be reluctant to switch to e-books, particularly for serious reading. In college, I engaged with non-fiction books by writing in margins. When I wanted to refer back to an earlier page, I found it by flipping through the book, looking for a note I knew I had made in a certain corner of a certain page. As a result of this training, I learn best from printed books. But students today are learning to learn in entirely different ways. They take electronic notes, make electronic highlights, and are perfectly comfortable searching for a page instead of flipping to find it.
To be sure, there are functional benefits to traditional books, in addition to the ability to take margin notes. When a book sits on a shelf, I remember that it’s there, and I may pull it out for reference (say, once every five years). Other people will see the book, and perhaps be impressed. Furthermore, if there is a map or a cast of characters laid out in the beginning, and I need to flip back frequently (as with the great novel Wolf Hall), a printed book is superior to an e-book. These functional benefits will keep printed books in existence for a few extra years, even after superficial tactile pleasures have become passe.
Printed books may be here to stay as a collector’s item, much like records today. Ultimately, however, the benefits of e-books far outweigh those of traditional books. E-books are less expensive to publish, less expensive to buy, and easy to obtain in minutes from almost any location. An entire library can painlessly fit in your pocket or purse. And I love the sample function. Reading a sample gives me a much better sense of a book than I could get by flipping through pages at my local bookstore. If I’m not compelled to keep reading by the end of the sample, I’ve learned to abandon the book.
This presents a major societal challenge: right now, anyone can check out a book at the local library for free, and used books can be bought for a few dollars or even a quarter. A transition to e-books will make it harder for low-income people to find books to read. We will need to manage this problem, perhaps by creating inexpensive e-readers that libraries can rent out to patrons instead of physical books.