E-books were supposed to have eradicated paperbacks by now, but instead, it appears as though the traditional format is proving to be resilient. The tech industry sought to marginalize print over the course of the past two decades in a vain attempt to highlight the virtues of and sell its own products.
However, despite the continued insistence by supposedly innovative companies, paper has quietly shown its value in the face of consistent attacks in the media. The reason that the industry has been targeted is that it has such immense power and lasting ability. Paper is vital in our society, and serves a variety of necessary functions that are not just limited to printing and writing. For example, household commodities like paper towels and tissues, as well as the boxes that products are sold and shipped in, are not likely to ever be replaced by any sort of digital alternative.
There is anecdotal evidence on both sides of the debate – one could suggest that paper will cease to exist in five years or that it will eventually outlast digital alternatives, and there would seemingly be a source to back up the claim. The one thing that can provide any sort of insight into the actual state of the paper industry is statistical data, garnered by a neutral source.
Fortunately for printers, the stats appear to favor their products.
E-book sales are dwindling and physical copies are on the rise
The Huffington Post cited statistics compiled by Nielsen Books & Consumer that measured book sales in the first half of 2014. The data is overwhelmingly in favor of hard copies, as they accounted for 67 percent of all sales compared to just 23 percent for e-books. Both hardcovers, at 25 percent, and paperbacks, at 42 percent, outsold their digital counterparts, indicating that consumer interest may lie with the traditional platform, after all.
The source noted that for the first time in 2013, e-book growth was limited to single digits. While many initially dismissed this as a relative anomaly, the 2014 numbers serve to enforce the idea that the industry is plateauing. What this might lead to, according to The Huffington Post, is a stable sales level for e-books that has probably already maxed out. The future will likely see paper books coexisting with digital competitors, and the hard copies should continue to be dominant in terms of numbers.
Experts agree that paper is more sustainable than digital gimmicks
BBC reported that industry veteran Tim Waterstone, owner of the U.K.-based bookstore chain Waterstone's, recently predicted that the e-book revolution is about the see a sharp decline. He remarked that while digital readers have made their claim in the market share, they have failed to overtake, let alone completely replace paper books.
The source noted that in 2013, U.S. e-book sales experienced a 5 percent decline, while hard copies rose 11.5 percent. As seen in the Nielsen Books & Consumer statistics referenced above, this trend continued into 2014. Waterstone said that the alleged strength of the e-book industry is a fallacy, and that interest in physical books is unbreakable and deeply rooted in human culture. He is not alone in this sentiment.
The Huffington Post spoke with legendary author Stephen King, who made an important distinction between how consumers have historically jumped from one audio platform to another with little hesitation and the attempt to eradicate paper books by creating electronic alternatives. The author noted that recorded music has only existed for a little over a century, while books have been an integral part of the human race's advancement for centuries. CD's and vinyl records were more flavor-of-the-week developments, while books were the primary means of transcribing history and relations right up until the relatively very recent technological surge.
Paper books are ingrained in culture in a way that audio formats simply cannot ever hope to match, due to the longevity and historical importance of print. King added that he expects books to have a bright future and remain viable for quite a while.
Waterstone described books as immovable by nature, given people's longstanding relationships with them and the apparent lack of interest in replacing them with digital alternatives. While e-books have certainly made their mark, they do not appear to have any sort of hope in rendering print irrelevant. The best case scenario for digital readers at this point appears to be coexistence with, rather than dominance over real books.
The digital revolution has given birth to plenty of changes in the way humans communicate and consume media. For many functions, this development has been transcendent in connecting different cultures and creating the first truly global society.
But one area in which technology does not appear poised to supplant its predecessor is in the book industry. The numbers agree with the experts: People are still infatuated with reading a real, tactile paper book.