Maybe It's Time to Admit People Just Like Books?

Print book sales continue to rise. Did the publishing industry actually get the streaming era right?

Print book sales in the first half of 2021 are up 18.5% over the first half of 2020, which itself was up 2.9% over 2019. Even better news, from my point of view: “The increase in the first half of 2021 was led by the adult fiction category, where units rose 30.7%.” This is good news for book fans and, of course, fiction writers like myself. (If you want to keep the second half sales strong, you can always preorder a copy of my novel The Body Scout...) But it also makes me wonder if publishing—despite all of its problems, outdated thinking, and resistance to change—actually got the digital era right?

As recently as 2015 or so, the common wisdom was that physical books were going the way of the VHS tape or CD. Sure, there would always be “snobs” who held onto physical media. But the market would be dominated by digital books in the same way that music, movies, and TV shows have moved almost entirely to streaming. There was no advantages to books except “nostalgia” and “fetish,” the thinking went, and the digital savvy youth would put an end to the outdated physical book. When publishers fought with Amazon to keep ebook prices close to print prices, the online commentariat mocked them for their backwards thinking that was going to doom the industry.

And yet here we are in 2021, fourteen years after the Kindle was first released and many years into an age when music, TV, film, and other media are almost entirely digital. Yet print books are not only strong, they still dominate the market. This is at the same time that pitiful music streaming payouts are crushing the music industry and digital magazines, constantly wrecked by changes in social media algorithms, are perpetually closing and laying off workers.

So how was publishing the industry that got the digital era right?

Probably it’s not publishing so much as the medium. People simply like books. They do! Despite the perpetual “is the novel dead?” articles and the tech bros thinking digital disruption of every single thing is inevitable, the physical still has some appeal in certain areas. And one of those areas is books.

I was always skeptical of the “buh-bye print books!” arguments. In 2014, I wrote an article for BuzzFeed saying that I didn’t expect the print book to go anywhere anytime soon—and had tons of people on Twitter tell me I was a Luddite dinosaur with no vision of the future. And even I, the ebook skeptic, still expected ebooks to be more of the market by 2021 than they are. According to a 2019 Vox article, print sales are around a huge 80% of the market… and a significant part of the non-print market is audiobooks.

So what is it about books that makes them different than other media like music or film? Part of the answer is that books are something you physically interact with when you consume. The feel and touch are part of the experience, for better or worse. This isn’t true of, say, a videogame or a movie. Putting in a disk or downloading a digital file into your system gives you the exact same experience. But the experience of a hardback vs. a mass market paperback vs. a Kindle cellphone app is different. You can prefer any one of those, but they’re different.

Additionally, people like the look of books. They like to carry them, hold them and put them on shelves. (Yes, they’re the worst thing possible to move with, but that’s because we want to keep them.) There’s a reason hotels might put up shelves of books as decoration, but will never do so for old CD or DVD cases.

There are other factors too. The fact that people consume books more slowly—it takes longer to read an average novel than listen to an album or watch a movie—and more infrequently actually helps books in the digital age, because the economics of streaming services make less sense. 10 bucks a month for unlimited streams is a great deal if you watch a dozen movies a month. It’s not a particularly great deal if you only read one book a month. (And then imagine if you had to subscribe to Hachette+ and PRH Max and HarperCollinsFlix and another dozen services just to have access to every book.)

But you also have to give the publishing industry credit here on the business front. They fought hard to make sure that ebooks weren’t sold for a fraction of print sale prices. So the public never fully got it in their head that ebooks should be a few bucks or, hell, free—essentially the mindset consumers have for digital music and journalism, with disastrous results for both industries.

The digital zealots tried a lot of ways to “enhance” books. Hypertext, pop-up images, and features. None of them stuck. Ultimately, even ebooks settled on being simply normal books on a device that tries to mimic the physical experience with limited “add on” features that most readers probably avoid anyway. Even harder for the tech bro zealots to handle is the fact that the gen z “digital natives” that were supposed to ensure ebook supremacy are actually the least interested in ebooks. They get plenty of screen time as it is between movies, TikTok, and video games. When it comes time to read a book, they’re ready for a break. (It’s actually aging boomers who are the most attached to ebooks, making one wonder if it won’t be ebooks going the way of the dinosaur soon…)

None of this is to say there isn’t more to be done with ebooks and other digital formats. I think there are a lot of smart things publishers could do, but aren’t, on that front. Fodder for future newsletters surely.

Still, we’ve been in this digital era long enough to know that print books aren’t going anywhere for a long long time.