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Whatever happened to the “death of print?”

Illustration by Jason Raish

Remember when ebooks were supposed to kill print? “They physical book is dead,” Nicholas Negroponte, founder of MIT Media Lab said back in 2010. He predicted that digital domination would come in five years.

The apocalypse is two years late. Is it coming at all?

According to the Association of American Publishers (AAP), ebook sales actually dropped this quarter. It’s not a catastrophic drop—only about five percent—but it is significant.

Why is this happening? “Screen fatigue” (a.k.a. “digital fatigue”) might be to blame.

In an interview with Mainstreet Magazine, Dick Herman of New York’s Oblong Books and Music commented on this issue: “E-books were really hot, but they are now in gradual decline. Holding a book is a much better experience than reading on a screen, which a lot of us have to do all day long at work.”

This attitude is becoming more common. The UK’s Daily Mail reported an increase in print sales of children’s books because “parents have often worried about youngsters spending too much time on their computer or games console.” Franklin Foer wrote a recent blog post for LitHub about digital reading. He returned to print, in part, because “after so many hours on the Web, I crave escaping the screen, retreating to paper.”

These are only the most recent and prominent quotes I found. “Screen fatigue” is a real concern for lots of people.

At the same time, print is doing well. In some sectors, sales are actually increasing. The AAP reported that sales of hardback books are up more than eight percent this quarter (paperback sales decreased, however). That same Daily Mail article claimed that sales of physical children’s books increased by three percent, even as ebook sales fell.

This brings us to another question: were print books ever doing as badly as we thought? According to Guy Kawasaki and Shawn Welch, authors of APE: How to Publish a Book, it depends on what kind of books we’re talking about. Ebooks are king in the world of genre fiction, but no one buys digital cookbooks.

So where’s the apocalypse? If there ever was one, it’s not happening to print itself. It’s happening to the traditional publishing industry. To say that digital publishing “disrupted” the old system is a massive understatement. This is where the earth is quaking. As rigid, out-of-date institutions crumble, small and indie presses rise, and self-publishing is finally viable. For readers and authors, this isn’t the end of world. It’s change for the better.

Finally, I’d like to ask you to look at your own bookshelf. I’m assuming you still have a bookshelf. I’m even willing to bet that some of the books on it are pretty new.

I’m not being cheeky; I’m actually making a point here. Even if you own an ereader and use it regularly, odds are, you haven’t abandoned print. You’ll find that most people maintain a similar balance. They read ebooks when it’s convenient and print books because they still love them.

There’s no Armageddon for us, only change that we can adopt as we see fit. Today is “Read an Ebook Day,” so turn on your gadgets and enjoy! Tomorrow, you might read a print book, and that’s worth celebrating, too.

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