Navigating the Holidays: Defending Print

The holidays are upon us.

And the holidays come with gatherings. Countless gatherings in which we are expected to humblebrag with relative strangers about our careers. I’ve noticed something about these interactions, and I know I’m not alone. When people — family friends or uninvited acquaintances of invited guests or that couple I found myself sharing awkward wall space with — hear the word “books,” they immediately start trying to dissuade me from a future of certain, abject poverty. That’s a dying industry. Or, publishing’s going the same way music did. Or, nobody reads books anymore – it’s all online! 

Sometimes I play along, expressing my fervent hope that my engineer brother will at least provide some insulation for the cardboard box I’ll be calling home. But other days I take the time to explain why, no, actually, print is not dead and, yes, actually, there is a future in books. Here’s how I go about it:

First of all, ebooks are not going to eclipse print. In fact, the ebook’s climb seems to have leveled off at about 30% of the industry. For now, most everybody who’s likely to become an e-reader reader has bought their device, and the print-lovers are staying strong. Physical books aren’t going anywhere.

Don’t believe me? Fine. Let’s pretend for a second that physical books aregoing away. That’s okay, so long as there is demand for the content inside those physical books. Because, if you’ll allow me to get a little existential for a second, what is a Kindle but an alternative to paper as a means to transmit that novel/memoir/short story collection/textbook? The publishing industry’s job is to curate, package, and distribute content. Without the physical book, sure, things would change a lot, but the industry’s core mission would remain.

Next I’ll address the claim that digitization of written content will send paper books to the same hipsters-only graveyard where digitization of music sent vinyl. On the surface, that parallel seems apt but, if you take a closer look at the evolution of music storage (records to iPods) and the evolution of books (hardcovers to iBooks), you’ll see they don’t actually work quite the same. Each new music-playing device has been intended as a more convenient, higher quality replacement of its predecessor: 8-tracks were sturdier and smaller than records, with higher sound quality. Cassettes were smaller still, and stored more music. CDs increased the sound quality again and made skipping to your favorite song a much easier process. Each device renders its parent obsolete. On the other hand, the evolution of books has been more of sprawl, each new format complementing the others in one way or another. Trade paperback and mass market appealed to readers looking to pay a little less for a book, or to grab a copy that was easier to travel with than a hardcover.

Yes, the development of e-readers has led some to give up paper books altogether but, for the majority of readers, ebooks are simply another option. I know readers who load up their Kindles for the daily commute, then come home at night to physical books for more stationary reading. I know others who use their e-readers exclusively in bed because the screen doesn’t disturb their significant others like a lamp would or because you don’t lose your place when you fall asleep and the e-reader falls to the floor.

For the record, digital reading has a lot going for it aside from its portability and in-bed safety. With ebooks comes the opportunity to offer bonus material: a video tutorial on how to julienne basil in the digital version of a cookbook; a QR code in an interior design book that leads you to DIY resources; exclusive access to an author’s sources from her historical novel… the possibilities are endless. But even as ebooks become more and more enhanced, I feel confident that they will exist side-by-side with print, as companions to, rather than cannibals of physical books.

But, hey, if you’re still so sure I’ll be out of a career, why don’t you buy the next round? Just write it off as a charitable donation.