The Opinion Engine 2.0:
Will the physical book become obsolete with the advances in technology? Could the same fate befall the physical act of love?

Question from Zoe Pattulo via Facebook.

Books However obsolete Google has now rendered most of my undergraduate degree in Information Studies, there were still plenty of lectures and seminars that in glancing forwards towards technological revolutions retained some of their resonance. Back in 1993 it seemed inconceivable that the internet would become so prevalent that it would effect our ability to retain knowledge causing us to rely on the devices at finger tips rather than the one which evolution has given us, yet here I am unable to remember the name of one my favourite actresses without recourse to the IMDb (it’s Barbara Stanwyck and now that I’ve typed it into something I might have a chance).

The other surprise, a few weeks into the Information and Society course was the death of the book, or at least a book made from wood pulp with physical pages. Even laptops at the time were hulking great big things and the idea that they’d become small enough to hold in the hand, something akin to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or Star Trek’s PADD seemed, for obvious reasons, like science fiction. Apart from anything else, we were all still writing this down on a A4 refill pad with a biro. Laborious perhaps but why would anyone want to give up something that flexible, permanent and undeletable without recourse to whitner or a match?

We were even tasked with listing all of the reasons why books might survive and the cumulative list on the white board was about what you might expect. That paper books are tactile, easy to access, resilient, not as susceptible to technological failure, enjoyable to pick up in a book shop and smell excellent when brand new. That last one was probably mine. Especially glossy text books, particularly if they’re employing a heavy duty paper. Yum. Anyway we all looked at that list and decided that electronic books or whatever they’d be called might happen, but they’d be a niche item. People would still want books. Wouldn’t they?

Well, hum. From Alison Flood of The Guardian, Friday 12 August 2011, 14.36 BST: “Sales of adult fiction in hardback so far this year have fallen by over 10% according to book sales monitor Nielsen BookScan: by this point last year, sales of the format had reached £29.7m, while this year they stand at £26.6m. Cheaper paperback sales, in contrast, have only fallen 6%. Hardback sales have fallen in volume as well as value, BookScan said, from 2.8m copies sold by this point last year to 2.6m this, echoing a trend over the last two years: 8.5m copies of adult fiction hardbacks were sold in total in 2009, compared to just 7m in 2010.”

It’s the near death of physical books, people. Read the whole article and find quotes from various members of the trade commenting on how hardbacks are themselves becoming the niche, premium products with eBooks likely to continue to “cannibalise” their sales. But there are two details which you might have missed – I did first time around and which are relatively important for present purposes.  (1) “Cheaper paperback sales, in contrast, have only fallen 6%” and another which isn’t even mentioned but is very important – that (2) generally hardbacks and eBooks are published on the same day often months and months before the cheaper paperback.

That’s important, and here’s why. My Dad is big fan of historo-fantasy writer Diana Gabaldon and after hearing she had a new book out duly sent me to Amazon to see if it is available in paperback. His preference for paperbacks goes back to when he was working. They were easier to hold on the bus and even the doorsteps he reads took up less space in his bag and even now he finds hardbacks unwieldy to hold. Plus they’re cheaper. Amazon reveals the paperback isn’t published until 25th October 2012 but that the hardback is out this week. So after the usual sigh he handed me his credit card details and we ordered the larger edition.

The eBook edition is out the same day and I wondered what might have happened if he was still working and he had a Kindle. Would he have bought the eBook version. Having just asked him, he said he might, especially after I’d explained to him how a Kindle and the other readers that are available actually work. But what about the other commuters with small bags and far to go, and not wanting to carry around a hardback for the sake of reading whatever’s printed inside? Might not they also buy the eBook, especially if the alternative is waiting up to a year for the more portable option (with the exception of an audio version but let’s not go there)?

I’ve had a hunt around online and although I can’t find specific evidence of that, this page offers some kind of profile of an typical human eBook reader: “Your typical “e-book power buyer” (i.e. someone who buys at least one e-book every week) is an urban or suburban 30-44 year old with a full-time job. Next in line are 45-54 year olds, followed by 18-29 year olds. Not surprisingly, people in the 55+ age category buy the fewest e-books—at least, for now.” So actually the typical human eBook reader is exactly the kind of person who’d want a portable version of the book and perhaps has the disposable income to offset the loss of a physical item.

That release window has to be a sticking point. People have no patience, and why should they when media companies still attempt to impose artificial release windows which is presumably how a lot of people view this hardback/paperback gap. If through some bizarre set of circumstances, music publishers decided to attempt to save vinyl by delaying the release of cds and downloads for a year after the initial hotwax publication, the price of turntables would clearly increase, especially the ones which easily plug into PCs for the transformation into mp3s, crackle and hiss intact. It’s why the gap between theatrical and home release of films is ever narrowing.

It’s almost as though they want physical format sales to fail, and who could blame them? Even taking into account the environmental cost (as if that’s even an issue), there’s the whole process of printing and distributing paper books which is becoming ever more expensive thanks to the likes of fuel prices. Much easier to have the consumer effectively duplicate it themselves when they download. Plus, since the books can’t be resold or lent out easily (though libraries are trying their best even if they’re not going to be here much longer thanks to the drop in funding), readers are forced to buy brand new copies of everything, which is a major shift.

Now all we need to do is ask those young commuters if they’d buy the paperback instead if it was available on the same day. If they’re anything like me they’d still buy paper books. But then they’re not anything like me because I don’t have an eReader, will wait for a book to be published in paperback and don’t often read newly published books anyway, unless they feature a Time Lord in the lead role or is a four hundred year old play. The Caitlin Moran was my first in ages and I’m now deep into rediscovering the classics after deciding to collect the latest gorgeously designed edition of the Oxford World Classics.

Aha, and aha, what about Borders? What about all those US chains closing? What about the gloomy future of Waterstones and the independent book retailers? Some of that might have been about eBook sales, but it’s mostly because of people like me buying from Amazon and charity shops. Yes, but what about the death of the cd? Of vinyl? Isn’t that the same? That’s a portability issue too. Why lug around all those shiny discs when your mobile phone will play the same music. Oddly enough, I’ve gone back to my cd player because it’s more practical for listening to audiobooks because it allows you restart in the middle of a track and sentence.

All of which said, do I think the physical book will ever become obsolete with the advances in technology? Yes, probably, but it’ll take centuries, assuming we’re all still here. People just like paper books and it’s not until there are enough of us who’ve only ever been exposed to reading eBooks that there will be a change, the collective memory moves on, for the same reason I’m not scrawling this into a stone tablet or writing this on cloth. Apart from anything else, it’s a matter of usability. Hand someone a book and they immediately know what to do with it. Hand them an eBook reader and the learning curve begins.

The physical act of love, like the unexpected segway, will never be obsolete. This isn’t another topic discussed during my Information Studies course but there have certainly been enough films before and since which have tackled what a non-physical act of love would be like, usually involving virtual reality (The Lawnmower Man) or whatever the orgasmatron was (Sleeper). Or perhaps the question means in terms of onanistic pleasure thanks to electronic stimulation, either on a screen or in the hand, in which case you should never knock that sort of thing. To paraphrase Woody Allen in Annie Hall, it's sex with someone you love.

But to risk going a bit Swizz Tony from The Fast Show, we’ll never give up the physical act of love with (I’m assuming the question means) another person for much the same reason we can’t quit books. Because they’re tactile. Because they’re easy to access. Because they’re resilient. Because they’re not as susceptible to technological failure. Because they’re enjoyable to pick up in a book shop (not, let’s face it, I would know) and especially because they smell excellent when brand new. Well, alright, that’s stretching the metaphor a bit (a bit?) (bye, readers), but there’s no substitute for being with a person, especially someone you love.


What both questions really underscore is that people prefer the physical reality of things. Even eBook readers are things, even if we stop using paper for new releases, people will still have to hold something in their hands, just as people still want to hold people in their hands. Another way of interpreting the question could have been “will the physical act of reading become obsolete with the advances in technology?” but I still don’t think so. Film, television and theatre can offer unforgettable experiences, but as I’ve discovered myself in rediscovering reading there’s something very intimate about a book, an intimacy that is irreplaceable.

[Updated:  BBC's Imagine programme covered much the same topic tonight.  it's now available on the iPlayer.]

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