Writers in the Storm

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June 4, 2021

The Death of Print Books?

by James Preston

Let’s talk for a minute, you and I, and then raise a glass to absent comrades -- the printed word, at least on paper.

Books are a visceral and sensory memory for many of us. A physical book has connections not only to the words but also to where you bought it, when you first read it, and maybe what you were eating at the time.

In this essay I’ll use a few personal examples to illustrate the differences between e-books and print, and then I’ll examine that popular concept -- physical books are dying -- to see how it stacks up against the facts. At the end we’ll raise a glass and salute our absent comrades, the books we love that have gone away.

Progress and Change

In 1450, Gutenberg’s printing press began a revolution. Books became cheap — relative to hand-inscribed works of art that were chained to tables — and the world changed. In 1455 Gutenberg printed his masterpiece, the 42-line Bible, and the world hasn’t been the same since. 

Now we’re in the midst of another revolutionary change to the “book mindset.” Yeah, you guessed it, the internet. Common knowledge, right? When was the last time you pulled up a chair and opened a heavy volume filled with beautiful penmanship? But they’re not gone, they’re just under lock and key, just like in the 1400’s.

Is Print Dead?

I grew up with books. They were then and are now my friends. My guess is they are yours, too. They were the package that delivered tales of romance and adventure to you and to me. I treasure them, not just the stories they contain but also the physical package, the binding, the pages, the mayonnaise thumbprint left when I read The Hardy Boys: Tower Treasure while eating a baloney sandwich. Hey, I was eight years old. Cut me some slack.

Everybody knows books are being killed by electronic villains - or heroes, depending on where you stand and when you were born. 

Let’s talk about that.

My Personal Book Journey

The Tower Treasure, The Secret of the Old Mill, Space Cadet and others like them are my friends, and they are going away. It’s common knowledge that we are in the twilight of the book era.

Or are we?

Once upon a time I was in the middle of getting a Masters in Library and Information Science at USC. (Yes, I’m a book nerd.) I wanted to write an essay called “Moby Dick is Melting.” The idea was that Moby Dick used to be a book; you could pick it up carry it around. Now it’s ones and zeros on a disc, or a voice on a tape, so what is it?

I was never able to make the essay work, in part because e-books hadn’t really arrived and also because the answer is simple. This is a quiz. Just what is Moby Dick? We’ll come back to the answer to the quiz later. Be prepared to show your work.

Look at The Hardy Boys: The Tower Treasure. That’s the copy I got when I was, eight so it’s had kind of a tough life, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Every time I look at it, I remember sitting on the floor in front of the wall heater, with my dachshund next to me, as the heroes, Frank and Joe, solve their first case.

Then I discovered Robert A. Heinlein in the Fullerton Public Library. One of my favorites was Have Space Suit — Will Travel.

Wow! Characterization! A new world opened. And it was free! I checked out the book and took it home. Then my grandmother gave me my own copy, the one you see here, that I still own.

An Elegy to Physical Books

Physical books have that sensory connection I mentioned before. You can touch them, smell them, carry them.

Physical books also have covers, and when you’re a kid they can get you in trouble. Check out Murderer’s Row by Donald Hamilton, with the lady wading out of the water in a dress with one spaghetti strap slipping down.

This was a book I had to fight for. I bought it at the R&B drugstore on Main Street in El Segundo when I was in High School, probably in early 1963.

The conversation at the cash register went like this: “Oh, you don’t want that.” The man behind the counter gently pushed the book aside.

“Sure I do. This is by Donald Hamilton and he’s a really good writer and I like him as much as Ian Fleming and . . .“ And on and on.

I think the clerk was simply worn down by my monologue. I didn’t have words like characterization and pacing in my vocabulary then, but I knew that the book was excellent, perhaps as good as some of Ian Fleming’s James Bonds.

Soon his eyes glazed over (sometimes I do that to people; I have no idea why) and he sold me the book.

That exchange would not happen with an e-book. Tap Download and there it is.

And here’s Red Dragon. I remember where and how I bought it. We were camping in San Diego and walking through town with my friends. I saw it on the revolving rack in a drugstore window as we went by. It grabbed me.

I went in and bought it and discovered Thomas Harris.I don‘t thnk an e-book will ever have a chance to do that.

Finally, we have this battered volume of Murder for Pleasure. It found its way to a used bookstore in Ventura California where I discovered it when I was book hunting with my father.

He collected westerns; I looked for mystery or science fiction and we always had a great time prowling through the dusty shelves. Look at it! Can you imagine the stories this beat-up volume could tell? USS Sitkoh Bay, Air Force library at Vandenberg AFB, eventually a discard and then a used book store. I sometimes look at it and wonder. And I remember that time with my father.

An e-book is both permanent and impermanent. It will not have a history like that. I believe physical books provide different kinds of connections with the reader that e-books just can’t.

Do we need to raise a glass, or hold a wake, for print books? Not yet.

Book Sales by the Numbers

So — is print dead?

Nope. The numbers simply do not support the death of books. There are multiple sources on the Internet.

Print book sales in 2019 and 2020:

     2019 -- 130,541
     2020 -- 138,421 (Up 6.0%)

~ from PublishersWeekly.com

Newspapers and magazines are, of course, a different story, but our friend, the printed book, is still alive.

Answer to the Quiz

Oh, yeah, the quiz – our question about Moby Dick. Despite being stabbed repeatedly by Ahab, the big blubbery guy is alive and well, because the answer is Moby Dick is a story. The rest is packaging.

We’ve looked at a few of the differences between a sometimes tattered and dusty book-book and a sleek, invulnerable e-book. I could do a mirror-image of this essay and point out how great it is to be able to add notes to e-books, and how you can look up terms effortlessly.

And how you will never find a mayonnaise thumbprint.

But that’s another essay.

So, if you love books, I bring you a message of hope. Physical books are not going away soon. And as for story, why, it will be with us always. So raise a glass, my friends, to books, to the people who create them, and most of all to the readers who treasure them.

Now, let’s hear from you.  Do you have a favorite book story? Maybe from when you were growing up? Anybody read Nancy Drew? J. K. Rowling? Anybody sneak a copy of Valley of the Dolls in and hide it under their bed? Or run into a clerk who tried to talk you out of a particularly tacky cover? Please share those stories with us because we have similar experiences!

For More Information

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About James

James R. Preston is the author of the multiple-award-winning Surf City Mysteries. He is currently at work on the sixth, called Remains To Be Seen. His most recent works are Crashpad and Buzzkill, two historical novellas set in the 1960’s at Cal State Long Beach. Kirkus Reviews called Buzzkill “A historical thriller enriched by characters who sparkle and refuse to be forgotten.”

His webpage is www.jamesrpreston.com. He can be reached at james@jamesrpreston.com.

Note: All the book pictures in this essay – except the first two and this last one -- were taken on my iPhone camera, which automatically uploads to my iPad, where this essay was written before moving it to my Windows desktop. So, call me a traitor...

33 comments on “The Death of Print Books?”

  1. Several years ago, when Amazon introduced Kindle, the question was also asked "Are print books going to die?" I'm very glad they haven't! Ebooks are cheaper and quicker to receive, but they can't replace the feeling of a physical book. But then, like you, I grew up before ebooks -- so I'm accustomed to print books. They give a break from so much screen time. And I like your descriptions of paper books containing stories: where you bought them, your shared history along the way (perhaps with re-readings). I grew up working in my grandparents' bookstore, so print books will always have a special place in my heart -- memories of the shelves of books in the store, and people remarking on books as they purchased them.

    Another segment that I wonder about the continuation of print books: print-on-demand makes it easy for us self-published authors to order a paper copy of our books. (And for curious readers to order them too.) For me, it's much more satisfying to hold a print copy of my books than see the ebooks.

    1. Dave, thanks! You got to work in a bookstore! That must have been great. I remember sometimes my mother & I would go shopping at the Robinson's in LA and how I loved their book department with it's shelves of books. If I remember correctly that's where I bought Andre (Alice) Norton's Catseye.

      Yes, print-on-demand is another game-changer. And some concepts -- like "first edition" and even "out of print" -- may very well be going away. I think we are in the middle of a huge change, but I also think it looks like some things will be with us for a while -- the physical book included.
      Thanks again for posting.

  2. I don't care about format (except audio--not wired for that). Right now, my peeve with print (usually paperback) is the publishers have them printed with the text so far into the gutter it's a physical effort to hold them open far enough to read. For me, it's the story. Period. I love my ereader for being able to enlarge the font and dim the screen for insomnia reading. And, as we moved to a much smaller place when we retired, having the physical space for more print books means we get most of those from the library.
    I started reading long before ebooks were around. I started publishing with digital first publishers BEFORE the Kindle. Yes, there were ebooks before Amazon.

    1. Terry, excellent comment! And right on all counts. My wife especially likes being able to increase the font size at night after reading all day. And I feel your pain about shelf space because I am currently, with great reluctance, weeding some of my collection. (Do I really need the paperback copy of Wouk's The Caine Mutiny that I took with me when I moved away from home to live in the dorm? Well, yes, I'm keeping that one. You see my problem.) And libraries! I live in fear of walking into a library that stocks my books and seeing one of mine on the "Discard! Fifty cents for a book!" shelf.

      Like you, I can't do audio books. My friend Steve & I were driving up to Mammoth to go skiing when he put in a CD of a Tom Clancy novel. I got sucked in and nearly drove us off the road.

      You were digital first? Wow, impressive. There's got to be a story behind that.

    2. I can't get into most audiobooks either, and I thought I was the only one! I'll listen to them in a pinch, but the narrators voice almost always distracts me from the characters. I prefer to read (mostly ebooks if I'm honest).

      1. My problem with audiobooks is the reverse: I get sucked into the story and lose track of everything else. This has in the past made me a hazard on the highway. It also frightens any passengers who have the misfortune of riding with me.

  3. I loved your article, James, especially the images of your most treasured books. I have an ancient and treasured book as well: Jane Eyre. My paperback edition was published by Airmont Books of NYC in 1963. I was 14 when I bought it with my babysitting money for the grand price of 60 cents. If you do the math then, yes, the book is 58 years old. (Fortunately, I haven't aged a bit.) The pages are very yellow, the cover is a bit rough in places, and inexplicably the word "words" is marked through with black ink on the last page. Still, I wouldn't give it away for love or money. Thank you for making me smile today.

    1. Oh, Diane, I can see that paperback in my mind right now. Bought with babysitting money! And that marked out word -- "words" -- will always be a puzzle. I didn't babysit, but my grandmother would send me $5.00 for my birthday and my mother would take me to Robinson's (for you younger readers it's a long-gone department store) and I could buy five Hardy Boy books for $1.00 each. I could always talk my mother out of a few cents to pay the tax. I still have them, old friends that have traveled with me to many different addresses.
      Thank you very much for sharing your story. I'm glad I made you smile!

  4. James, I still covet (is that an acceptable word these days?) my original paperback of Foundation. Can't even guess how many times I've read it. (And there's a Disney+ series coming out!). Last week I received a hardcopy proof of my latest from Amazon. Such a thrill holding it.

    But there may be hope for the younger generation as well. My teenage granddaughters all request paperbacks on their wish lists. Must be in the genes. Keep the faith.

  5. Thanks, Jack. Foundation! Oh, yeah, I remember when I found it in the El Segundo Public Library and met Hari Seldon for the first time. Now I too have a battered paperback. I didn't know about the Disney series; that could be great. (They've got Star Wars, too. What's next?) I'm looking forward to print galleys of my new book, that I can mark up.

    Glad to hear about your granddaughters!

    Full disclosure: Jack Bowie is the author of the Adam Braxton thrillers. I'm a fan and in fact reviewed his newest, The Bergen Legacy. Check it out.

  6. I doubt that print will ever be dead but I think the sentimentality and dare I say it, snobbery, over print is misplaced. I love the convenience of ebooks, of being able to refer back to a reference in one of them, having any ebook available whenever I want it, the reduction in space for my collection down to my iPad and then being available on any other iPad, being able to highlight sections and to be able to search those highlights later to find the piece I remembered, all of these set me firmly in the digital camp. As for the memories attached to a book, we mistake this for the physical book itself when in fact the memory is even more permanent in our lifetime.

    1. I am absolutely in the digital camp with you, Michael. I love the space-saving privacy of my Kindle. And I'm glad you realize that James is as far away from a snob as you'll find so you could feel comfortable enough to make this comment.

      Welcome to WITS. Happy reading!

      1. Thank you, Jenny. It looks like I touched a nerve. Who would have thought? And isn't it really cool that Writers in the Storm offers a forum for this kind of discussion? Even a short few years ago this would not have happened. I guess my point is that it's a new world -- but not completely different. It's still the story that counts, more than the package.
        Maybe the story is all that counts.

        1. The story is always what counts! We always encourage respectful discourse here and love it when people delve into the issues. We let every comment stand, as long as it isn't mean, disrespectful, or blatant spam.

    2. Whoa, Michael. I expected an interesting response to this essay, but not that it would be controversial!

      First, thanks for taking the time to comment, and for thinking about "The Death of Print Books?"
      The motivation for the essay was the realization that book book sales are not tanking. Frankly, I was surprised and in many ways pleased. However, you'll note that I briefly pointed out -- as you did --some of the many advantages of e-books.

      But let's talk about sales. In 2019 the Association of American Publishers reported that sales of e-books declined 4.9%. Strange, huh? Another number I was not expecting. A different source quoted e-book sales as up 12.7% for the first six months of 2020. Go figure.

      Can we conclude from this that paper is making a comeback? Not at all IMHO. 2019 could be a outlier, or something else could be going on. Ditto for the first half of 2020.

      Fortunately, it is not an either-or question. My guess is that both packages will continue for a long time because both have advantages and disadvantages.

      Hmmm. Snob? Nah. There are audiophiles who love their vinyl lps, but I'm not one. Note the snapshot of me on vacation with my iPad. (And thanks to the folks at WITS for running a different author picture.)

      And thanks again for commenting.

  7. I rejected ebooks for years after they became available. I couldn't imagine reading a novel in any format except a "real" book. Then, when I decided to publish my first book in both paperback and e-book, I decided I should "try" an e-book. It took awhile (4 books to be exact) until I didn't get highlighted parts or book marks that I didn't want, but then I enjoyed the speed at which I could scroll down the page. They are cheaper than paperbacks and they don't take up space on my nightstand or in a bookcase, which is reserved for my past "keepers," like Asimov's Foundation Trilogy. Also, my favorite used book stores went out of business, so I didn't have a place to hang out pouring through the shelves for "finds."

    I have to admit that I have also become a bit of a demand feeder--I like getting a new book immediately so I can read it while the sample is still fresh in my brain.

    Thanks for one of your always-engaging posts, James. Now I'll go back to fighting Amazon to accept the paperback I've been trying to put up for sale...

  8. Fae, thanks for a great comment. Like you, I resisted e-books. I mean, books are cool! You can hold them, turn the pages, take one off the "To Be Read" stack. Than my wife gave me a Kindle and the world changed. No more cramming a bag full of books to go on vacation -- not only can you take an entire library, if you hear of a new Jayne Ann Krentz or Janet Evanovich while you are on the beach, why, you can buy it with the push of a button.
    Sigh. But physical books are still my friends, and I'm glad in this essay to point out that they will be with us for a while. From where I am sitting I can see my special Twentieth Anniversary Edition of Stephen King's It, and special editions like that are another reason the book book will last.

    Fae is the author of P.R.I.S.M. a science fiction adventure that you should definitely check out -- in any format it's a good read.

  9. Excellent choice! Thanks! And I'll bet there's one of those copies -- probably the one you got first -- that stands out in your mind.

  10. Grew up loving books, treasuring words as soon as I knew how to read. The public library was my refuge. I read Shakespeare and the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam and short stories of Guy deMaupassant. When I got to first grade I was stunned at the stupidity of Dick and Jane and Sally and Spot. I didn't read Nancy Drew, I read the history of the wild mustangs and the marvelous Plains Indian riders who spoke to their horses and never used a saddle. I love real paper books with a love so deep that nothing else can touch it. Have recently published the first book of my memoir trilogy Victory Is My Name, in paperback and e-book. There is one good thing about e-books. You can offer them to friends and colleagues for free. One friend read the whole 280-pg book on her cellphone. It's not a perfect system or even a good one, but I bite the bullet and grit my teeth and surrender to the tide, a little bit. Nothing can ever replace real books, just like nothing can replace the real human being in tech support, personal, and medical matters. We as a species are slow learners, but we will learn.

    1. What a fascinating early reader you were, Victoria! We read Guy de Maupassant's stories in high school and I loved them. Thanks so much for adding to the discussion. 🙂

    2. Victoria, thank you so much! I hadn't thought about it for a long time, but I started out with Norse mythology -- Loki & Odin and Ragnarok -- in books from the Fullerton Public Library. And yet, when I discovered The Hardy Boys I still loved their adventures. I suspect those very early myth stories are one reason I like The Avengers movies so well, The first time I watched the first one I said, "They got Loki right!" And Heinlein has the Bifrost Lounge on one of his interstellar spaceships. These things stick with us, don't they?

      Thanks again.

    1. Interesting! Thanks, Cygnet. I think there's a place for both, but I'm glad to hear you say you're selling book books. I got a text this morning from a teenage girl responding to the essay and it included a picture of her holding up two book covers that fit together to make one picture. I wonder if your covers have to do with the physical book sales.

      I was not familiar with Ms Brown's work, so I took a look at her home page. She's got some interesting titles, both fiction and nonfiction. Worth a look!

        1. That's in interesting question, and in fact one that relates to e-books vs physical books. For answers I think the best thing to do is search the Writers in the Storm files for articles about that topic. I know you'll find it worthwhile. Let me know how it works out, and good luck!

          1. If I may, the answer to that question is, yes, book covers do influence book sales. I owned a small bookstore in a rural area for 15 years (1998-2013), and one aspect of bookselling (that I suspect most readers here already know) is that publishes offer financial incentives to booksellers for advertising and in-store promotion of some titles, and the most common promotions are (or were, things may have changed) featuring a title in a window display, face-out on a table or endcap, or face-out on a shelf.

            Obviously, publishers aren't spending time and money on designing covers because they're art fans--they might be, but when a business invests in something it's because they expect it will benefit their bottom line. I think what is misunderstood about book covers is the way they influence sales: a poorly written book, especially by an unknown author, will not be helped by the cover no matter how beautiful or provocative it is. On the other hand, the wrong book cover can hurt the sales of a well-written book by an established, very popular author. As proof of this, I offer Michael Lewis and his book "The Blind Side."

            As a fan of Michael Lewis, I would order his new books sight unseen (I.e., even if I hadn't read an ARC), so when the Norton rep told me there was a new Michael Lewis, I ordered a few copies (probably only three or four--like I said, it was a small store and this was the hardcover). The artwork on the original hardcover edition was black (like a chalk board) with Michael Lewis' name in white scrawled across the top half, and an Xs and Os diagram of a football play on the bottom half. It was a dud. For the better part of a year it sat, face out, gathering dust. And, apparently that was its' fate at most bookstores. A while later, when the trade paperback was scheduled to come out, the rep asked me about ordering, and I declined, saying "I don't think so--it didn't work..." I was about to explain that, not being a football fan, I hadn't even bothered with it, when the rep jumped in with, "Don't worry! They've re-designed the cover!" It seemed that the chalkboard cover led people to think it was about technical aspects of football, something that, apparently, few people were interested in, regardless of the author.

            My takeaway: a bestselling author just needs their name on the cover; for everyone else, it seems to me the true art of a book cover is a design that conveys genre and something about the story (character, setting, era, etc.), and is also interesting enough to get a bookstore or website browser to stop long enough to read a bit more about it.

            Okay...I obviously have far too much time on my hands this afternoon, so I'm going away now to find something to cook or clean.

  11. I have found that children, who have grown up with computers, still like print books. I write middle grade and sell more print books than e-books. So I don't believe print books are dead. We just have more choices now. A great article. I still have my copy of the Bobbsey Twins in Mexico my grade three teacher gave me for being outstanding student of the year. I also have my much worn copy of Little Women. Treasures.

    1. Treasures all, Darlene! In another comment I refer to a photo sent to me of a teenager holding up two of her favorite books. Yes, choices indeed. Bobbsey Twins, yeah!
      Thanks for commenting.

  12. I loved your article James. I love all forms audio, paper, and e-reader. For me they all have advantages and disadvantages. I consumed Bobbsey Twins, Hardy Boys, and Nancy Drew. Even named my cat Snoop! I never had a lot of shelf space. When I read the John Jakes bicentennial series. I would go to the library and if they didn't have it, I would buy it and donate it when I finished it. I got into audio when we made long car trips to Tahoe and Santa Maria (reading in the car wasn't great for me) It was like a mini book club. We would discuss what we had heard when we stopped to eat. It made good conversation for the whole family. Like you said, being able to change the font on an e-book has sometimes been a life saver. I do have all of your books James in print and somewhere my old copy of Peyton Place still with a white paper cover on it.

    1. Thank you, Laddie, thank you! Peyton Place with a white cover -- I love it! I can't read in the car, either, and an audio book takes over all, and I do mean all, my attention so driving is not recommended.
      Shelf space -- ugh! I'm weeding now. Do we really need a text on proper typewriting? Probably not. I remember a summer school class my mother made me take at ESHS on typing. She said everybody should be able to type. And cook. And iron a shirt. Ah, yes, you took me back.
      Thanks again!

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