I attended a birthday party recently, and one feature of the evening startled me. What was it? Well, not jelly wrestlers or exotic dancers — the event was very much a family affair. Actually, I saw guests queuing for photos with a Polaroid camera — you know, the kind that prints a snap after you’ve taken it, the kind that was popular years ago.

This got me thinking.

In this digitally enhanced world that we live, people still hanker for the touchable, the smellable — the real.

Vinyl is a good example. Who would have dreamed scratchy records would become a niche product commanding 10 times the price they used to?

Actually, I don’t think the phenomenon is that surprising. Sure, the benefits of digital technology are immeasurable. How did we ever cope before the invention of smartphones?! There has, however, been collateral damage along the way.

What do I mean? Well, as a rule, digital products are less special than their physical predecessors. Music, for example, has become ‘cheap as chips,’ a takeaway product. I can’t imagine any music lover revering his iTunes downloads quite like a record collector does his LPs.

Where am I heading with this? Well, I’m a freelance writer, and I see a similar trend in book publishing.

The rise of e-books

Not long ago, when Amazon introduced the Kindle, many commentators predicted the end was nigh for physical books. Well, in the year two-thousand-and-seventeen, now the dust has cleared, I’m happy to report they were wrong.

Ocean Reeve, the owner of self-publishing specialists Ocean Reeve Publishing, says physical books are growing in popularity:

Nielson BookScan collects data from all the bookstores that scan barcodes on the backs of books when sold. Since 2010, there has been growth in sales of physical books of about US$ 1.5 billion globally."

This figure, Ocean adds, doesn't include the growing number of books sold by self-published authors.

Margaret Sinclair, Publisher of General Nonfiction at Penguin Random House New Zealand, concurs:

“Physical books are holding their own, particularly as gifts,” says Margaret. “I’ve also heard from independent [non-chain] booksellers that they are getting more young people coming in and saying they are tired of reading on screens, and want physical books to read.”

In relation to illustrated books, Margaret adds that digital has never made an impact; tablets and e-readers just don’t do justice to a full-colour spread.

The benefits of physical books

Here are some reasons why books with real pages continue to be popular:

  • Better recollection — a study in Norway found Kindle readers tend to absorb less information than readers of physical books, possibly due to the feel and smell of the paper.
  • More pleasurable — again, because of the tactile nature, many readers derive more pleasure by turning the pages of a real book.
  • Better for health — the light from e-books can affect your sleep and alertness the following morning, according to a study by Harvard Medical School.

My thoughts

I don’t have a problem with e-books; I have several loaded on my iPad.

E-books are ideal for topics where information becomes obsolete quickly (marketing and technology, for example) because they are easy to update. As for the news, physical newspapers become out of date the moment they hit the newsagents; I get my news from an app on my iPhone.

For special occasions and pleasure, though, surely there is no replacing physical books.

As a freelance writer working with businesses, I have witnessed the popularity of coffee table books. What could be better than a book for employees and clients to mark an anniversary? Digital downloads just don’t cut it somehow.

I reckon most avid readers want books to hold, share, make notes in and display proudly on bookshelves. Books shape our identity; they document our cerebral journeys. So, instead of sharing the fate of the dodo, surely physical book publishing is on the rise, the ‘next big thing.’

What do you think? If you enjoyed this post, please share. I welcome your comments.

  1. Hi Andrew,
    Interesting musings. All I can say is: “I hope so”! I like a mix of e-books (convenience) and tactile books (for all the advantages you mention above). And if I see the number of books for sale at markets, in airports, second hand (book) shops, businesses such as Bookdepository, the popularity of (New Zealand) libraries and thriving book stores (like Poppies in New Plymouth!), I’m feeling positive and think you are right.

  2. Books are great. Owing rows upon rows on my bookshelf sorted alphabetically by author gives me quick access when needed. When I video conference this display fill my background as a not so subtle proof of my learning. But I travel a lot and to carry them with me is simply impossible. Here ebook come into their own. I have hundreds adding no weight to my iPad. Always there with all my notes that are searchable and shareable. Books have their place but ebooks was the invention we were all waiting for.

  3. I think there’s a lot of opportunity for books. Unfortunately, it can get expensive to publish + market it to be profitable, unless you sell back-end services/products.

    But, I’m still new to the book publishing world 🙂

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