News & Opinion

More on the digital vs. paper debate...

September 20, 2007


We often get into philosophical debates here on everything from what constitutes a sport to the evolution of the book industry. Many times, these conversations are conducted through a string of emails. Rebecca introduced you to one debate.

We often get into philosophical debates here on everything from what constitutes a sport to the evolution of the book industry. Many times, these conversations are conducted through a string of emails. Rebecca introduced you to one debate. I thought you might like to see it unfold. Here's a piece of the digital vs. paper debate -- featuring Jon, Rebecca, Todd and Dylan. It's lengthy and poses interesting questions and points about business books and reading in general. I did edit bits and pieces to trim it a bit for your -- the reader's -- sake. And so it begins: Todd opens:
I saw this on the Apple Keynote: 32% of the music released in 2006 was digital-only (no CD was released) Think about a similar phenomenon in publishing and what that would mean...
We all think. Jon responds first:
I still don't know if there's that strong of a connection between these types of publishing. Downloading a song and carrying it around makes sense. Downloading a 300 pg novel doesn't. How will this change? Maybe language will change based on technology. Maybe people will start using less words, more images/sounds/etc. Then a 300 pg novel could be reduced to a much shorter presentation with generally the same message. Sort of like Kanji, but much further. This leads to much bigger questions - Is this beneficial? Is this progress? Will it lead to an even greater sense of illiteracy? Thanks for the happy morning thoughts, Todd!
Keep reading... Dylan brings it back around:
As it pertains to business books, I think it would mean one of a few things. That someone had invented a good digital interface to read long format (book length) content on. That someone had invented a print-on-demand process to bind books in peoples homes and businesses. I say this because I don't think people want to print off a 200 page book on individual sheets of paper. I think they want it nicely bound... Now, as it pertains to business thought, I think 32% of it may already be digital. It's on blogs and in online magazines. I think our one big strength now is that businesses want speakers in person, they want to hand out that speaker's nicely bound, hardcover book to the attendees so they take a piece of that experience home with them, and they will therefore need the book in bulk.
And, Jon pulls in the Huffington:
Also, try interpreting this article as "The Velocity of Books."
Rebecca responds:
I'm not sure if Todd views it as a good or bad thing. He poses a good question: What could it mean? I think Jon hit the nail on the head with his questions: This leads to much bigger questions - Is this beneficial? Is this progress? Will it lead to an even greater sense of illiteracy? Consider the article that came out a few weeks ago. 1 in 4 people did not read a book last year. That doesn't mean they read a digital book instead of a paper one. It means that fewer and fewer people are reading. I'd venture a guess and say that more and more people are listening to music. Now I'm getting a little philosophical, but I feel that while pictures and sound can get messages across, exposure to the written word triggers processes in the brain that can't be replicated by any type of technology. I also wonder about the socio-economic impact that more digital technology is going to have. iPods and computers are expensive. Sure, poorer people still buy them, but if more and more moves to digital, how will some groups of people be able to afford maintaining complex devices? And even if I'm wrong about this, and books really are going to go away, I have the same question as Jon--is this progress?
Dylan returns with:
If Todd was implying that bulk book sales will disappear, at least as far as business books are concerned, I think I would disagree. I think what Jon suggests will, and definitely is happening, and I agree that we need to find our place in that new paradigm. But I think there is something else happening as well. More business books are being published now than ever, and a new kind of one as well. I think that as organizations speed up communication and start moving in new directions, it will be even more important to gather everyone in one place once or twice a year and focus on big new concepts and ideas to move forward with. I think this is especially true as the younger generation enters the workforce, people start working more often from home, etc. This is where the business book fits in, and where our more traditional bulk business is, and will be for some time. Keep in mind I'm thinking of this only as it pertains to our business, and not society as a whole. I think we must prepare ourselves for the eventuality of a decline in bulk book sales, but the trends seem to be in the other direction at the moment. On a larger cultural and societal scale, I definitely agree with Rebecca's comments and Jon's question. I'm almost positive that fiction, history, and business or "perspective" books will continue to be published on paper. I do wonder who will be reading them. Will only professionals in these fields read them? How will people buy them? Is there still a place for independent bookstores selling recently released works? An album is much different than a book though. The recent developments in music have made it more portable. The problem of the portability of ideas was solved by Gutenberg in the 1400's. I think they are moving in opposite directions, or that music is finally finding what books already provide for ideas and literature. If a really good ebook reader comes out, with the interface, portability, and feel comparable to a book, that may spoil my argument. People have said that will happen for over a decade, but people have also said we'll have flying cars soon since the 50's. I also don't find the fact that one in four people didn't read a single book last year all that surprising. I think that that MSNBC poll, done 50 years ago, would have shown many more non-readers than today. I will have to look that up.
Dylan researches:
Here's what I found. I only spent about an hour on this, and only referenced the internet and one DVD, so this is obviously not conclusive. Statistics from the National Endowment of the Arts Percentage of adults that read a single book.
1992: 60.9%
2002: 56.6%
I couldn't find any definitive statistics older than that online. The AP poll from the MSNBC story reported that 73% of adults read a book last year. ... I don't know if this question is the most important one to ask though. I think we should be looking at active readership. Is reading 1 book a year all that different from reading none, or one every other year? Is it "active readership"? More importantly for our purposes, how much would it support the publishing industry if they had read a single book? You could argue, I suppose, that reading breeds more reading, so if we could get everyone to read one book it could help. Moving on though... In David Schwartz's [editor's side note: David Schwartz was the son of the founder of our sister company and local independent Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops chain] interview with I Remember Milwaukee in 1995, he cited statistics that said around 15% of the population actively read and bought books at that time. According to David, that was up from around 3% when he started working with his father at the bookshops in the early 50's. He didn't mention where he got those statistics, but I would never doubt David's knowledge of the publishing industry or people's reading habits. Considering that there are simply more people today, that should mean significantly more readers that could potentially buy books. (I should note that I didn't remember David's actual statistics. I just remembered him referencing them, so I watched my copy of the show tonight to get those numbers.) According to that same NEA study from 2002 I referenced above, however, literary reading had dropped a larger percentage when the study was done.
1992: 54.%
2002: 46.7%
...Another good development is the consistent drop in adult illiteracy. Unfortunately, I could only find statistics up to 1979. From the U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Historical Statistics of the United States
Year ----- Total
1870 ----- 20.0
1880 ----- 17.0
1890 ----- 13.3
1900 ----- 10.7
1910 ----- 7.7
1920 ----- 6.0
1930 ----- 4.3
1940 ----- 2.9
1947 ----- 2.7
1950 ----- 3.2
1952 ----- 2.5
1959 ----- 2.2
1969 ----- 1.0
1979 ----- 0.6
That's where it ended. What do you think?

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