Editorial: Books — The Sequel – Valley News




When Borders declared bankruptcy in 2011, many people feared that they were hearing the death knell for books in print form and the stores that sold them. As readers migrated in large numbers from print to new digital reading devices, some analysts predicted that e-book sales would bury print, perhaps as soon as this year.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the funeral, as The New York Times reported last week. The e-book mania has subsided, and digital sales have slowed markedly. In fact, they fell by 10 percent in the first five months of this year, according to a trade group that collects data from nearly 1,200 publishers. Digital books last year claimed about the same share of the market — 20 percent — that they did several years ago.

At the same time, independent bookstores, which were closing at an alarming rate just five years ago, have turned the page and begun a new chapter. The American Booksellers Association has 1,712 members in 2,227 locations this year, compared with 1,410 in 1,660 locations in 2010. Book store owners in several cities told the Times that sales are up this year as people apparently return to the printed word.

“The fact that the digital side of the business has leveled off has worked to our advantage,” said Oren Teicher, chief of the booksellers group. “It’s resulted in a far healthier independent bookstore market today than we have had for a long time.”

Publishers are naturally seeking to capitalize on the trend, if that’s what it turns out to be. Many are investing heavily in their print and distribution infrastructure. Penguin Random House, for example, has invested nearly $100 million in expanding its warehouses and speeding up distribution. By doing so, it and other publishers allow independent booksellers to place smaller initial orders with the knowledge that they can quickly restock, cutting returns of unsold books by about 10 percent. “It’s a very simple thing,” Markus Dohle, chief executive of Penguin Random House told the Times. “Only books that are on the shelves can be sold.”

What accounts for this apparent reverse migration to print? We have a few theories, although they are only that. One is that after the novelty of reading a book on a digital device has worn off, it dawns on many readers that the experience is simply not as satisfying as it is in print. A book in physical form can provide sensory pleasure that the electronic version is unable to match; print books are somehow warm in a psychological sense, while digital devices are cold. It may also be that as more and more people sit in front of a computer all day at work, reading on a screen during leisure time has limited appeal. And, as the English writer Anthony Powell put it in the title of one of his most memorable novels, “Books Do Furnish a Room” (although he had the dwellings of non-readers in mind).

Outside the realm of theory, research strongly suggests that reading comprehension suffers when digital devices are employed. The electronic environment is prone to distraction and promotes skimming, neither of which is conducive to understanding content or remembering it. And there’s apparently something about the physical layout of a book in print that helps readers navigate longer works and recall passages. Perhaps this accounts in part for surveys that show that even so-called “digital natives” — young people who have grown up in the digital world — still prefer reading on paper.

The remarkable resilience of print is heartening, not only because a world without books is unthinkable but also because it demonstrates that technology does not always represent an improvement on the tried and true and that its siren song is not always irresistible.