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.
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.
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.
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.’