Will Books Disappear?

Written By: Timothy Fish Published: 2/8/2007

I saw an interesting news item the other day. Apparently, the worldís oldest newspaper, Sweden's Post-och Inrikes Tidningar newspaper has dropped its print version and is now available only in an electronic format. To put this in perspective, the paper only had a circulation of 1,000 (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/16993434/). Some church newsletters have a higher circulation, but that really isnít the point. It brings up a question of what the eventual fate of print publications of all kinds will be.

The Newspaper Predicament

Newspapers have and interesting problem. The primary reason people buy newspapers is to be informed about what is going on in the world, but there are other ways to get this information. People no longer have to wait for the newspaper to arrive in order to know what has happened. In fact, by the time my morning paper arrives on my drive the information it contains is already several hours old. In a world where hot news items are reported live, several hours is a long time. Many newspapers offer online versions. These online versions are often much more fresh than the print version.

The Magazine Predicament

Magazines are in a different situation than newspapers. People donít expect magazines to provide up to the minute news. Some do, through their websites, but people buy magazines for other reasons. A person might buy a magazine because it has a review of some product he is considering. A person might subscribe to a magazine because it consistently covers topics related to a hobby or an occupation. Often, this information can be found online, so there is the question of whether people will eventually quit buying magazines and only read the electronic version.

The Book Predicament

Books have been around for a long time. The invention of paper made it possible to make scrolls and then people began to bind books. The early printing presses were used for printing books. But modern technology has made it possible to read a book, or at least the words that would be in a book, in an electronic format. eBooks can be read using a computer or an electronic device with a screen. The question seems to be whether this technology will catch on and replace the printed word.

A Few Predictions

Of all of the print publications, newspapers are at the highest risk of completely disappearing. Newspapers have several things against them. One, they require a full day to produce, so the news is stale. Two, they are hard to read. They are hold to hold. They have to be folded and rolled up to carry. They contain piles of advertisements that have to be pitched. When comparing the ease of reading the newspaper to that of reading the online version, the online version usually wins. The only advantage that the printed version currently has is that it can be taken anywhere, but that problem will eventually be solved. I expect newspapers to be replaced by online news sources.

Magazines on the other hand, have some advantages that are not so easy to replace with an electronic version. While online versions of magazines can and do provide the same information as there print versions, it is not as easy to read the online versions. Magazines are easy to hold. They can be dropped on the floor and ignored until we are ready to read them. They have glossy color pictures. Some of them have inserts, such as paper patterns that would not be easy to print on 8Ĺ x 11 paper. It is cheaper for them to be printed in bulk than it would be for someone to print it at home. Magazines will stay around. They may change some, but they will still be widely read.

Books, like magazines, are easier to read in the paper version. That is not likely to change in the near future. There is just something about being able to flip through the pages of a book. There is something about being able to take it anywhere. There is something about being able to throw it in the fireplace when it is discovered that it is worthless. Looking at words on a computer screen or in an eBook reader is just not the same. It works, but it isnít the same. There is also something nice about the permanence of a book. eBooks are like any other file, they can be deleted inadvertently. It takes a lot more than hitting the wrong keep to send a printed book to the recycle bin. So, donít expect books to disappear anytime soon.

An Issue of Creditability

Literally anyone can publish their words for the world to see. Millions of people post their thoughts to the internet on a daily basis. With the availability of ad supported blogs, people can post their thoughts for free. It costs a little more, but anyone can have their words published in a printed form. With so many people being published, there is the question of how to determine who is the most credible. That is part of the reason that the printing presses will not be shutting down.

Putting a work in print adds credibility to the author. That is not to say that information that is available in an electronic form is not accurate unless it is printed. This also not to say that everything that makes it into print is accurate. Printing takes more time and more money than making the same work available online. When information is made available online people are generally not as concerned about whether the information should be provide or how accurate it is. If it is wrong, it can always be changed. When making a work available in print this is no the case. Because of the cost of printing and promotion of print materials, authors and publishers are more selective in what they send to the printing press. There is not option to change the information once the paper touches the hands of the readers. The most that can be done is to print a retraction or a correction. While a print document says nothing of the character of the person printing the document, the fact that it is in print says something about the authorís commitment to the topic. This implies a degree of credibility.

Because print documents imply that the document is more creditable, I think we will continue to see people give preference to the printed word over what is available on the Internet. Even with newspapers, I think this will be true. Up to the minute news is great, but articles that are available on the Internet are often changed between the time the article is made available and when the print newspaper goes to press. Online newspapers tend to be a work in progress, while the print version is the result. Online versions of books are nice, but when people look for a reference they will prefer a document that they know will stay around a while rather than one that might be here one day and only a dangling link the next.