Print books are here to stay

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By Courtney Tenz. Photo by MVPhotos

On the train, in airplanes, on nightstands: Books are everywhere. And their future looks bright according to a new study of those in the paper industry.

The death bells of the printed book have been tolling for much of the last century. From radio to television to the computer up through to the smartphone of modern day, new media has long been cited as a threat to the centuries-long tradition of the written text and the act of leisure reading.

In 1991, journalism professor Mitchell Stephens even went so far as to ask, “Will a nation that stops reading eventually stop thinking?”

As Stephens wrote in the LA Times, “Reading has begun fading from our culture at the very moment that its importance to that culture is finally being established.”

Nearly 30 years later, that doomsday sentiment sounds a bit presumptuous. By looking around the train carriage on your morning commute, at the holidaymaker on the beach towel or in the airplane seat beside you, print books remain a ubiquitous feature of modern life.

To borrow a phrase from American writer Mark Twain: Reports of the book’s death have been greatly exaggerated.

The staying power of print books was the subject of a survey of publishers and retailers conducted by Stora Enso in 2018. Its observations reaffirm that paper books hold a special place in people’s hearts.

A treat for all five senses

“When you measure free time, people tend to grab a paper book because it gives them time off from electronic media consumption,” says Essi Lauri, VP, head of Segment Newsprint & Book, in Stora Enso Paper division. After looking at a screen all day, many adults prefer to unwind before bedtime with a good old-fashioned print book.

Likewise, survey respondents say that books continue to be a popular item to gift. It’s nice to present a friend with something tangible that also reflects an in-depth knowledge of what would interest them. That’s in part why the future of paper book publishing depends not only on particular genres of books – image-rich art books and cookbooks are two areas expected to see growth – but also in the sensory experiences associated with reading.

Lisa Lucas, Executive Director of the US National Book Foundation, told PBS Newshour, “I have always loved books. I love the sentences. I love the paper. I love the way they smell. I love the variety of them.”

A lot of people seem to agree with Lucas. Studies show that just reading about garlic can create olfactory reactions so the way a book smells, in combination with the words printed within, can provide a reading experience unlike any other.

As a result, printers have been paying greater attention to the unique sensory features of books – for example, by using high-quality paper stock and focusing on cover quality. The majority of survey respondents say that their dream book would have a beautiful cover, smooth surface, high-quality paper and the best tone of white. One European publisher surveyed even noted that for some of their authors, paper and cover quality is so important, it can be a deal breaker if not up to par.

That focus on the feel of a book is paying off for one publisher in Italy. “We improved the tactile features and as a result the number of sold books increased, doubling our income.”

Children: the future of the book

It’s not just adults who love the way a book feels and smells. Touch-and-feel storybooks remain highly popular with toddlers. And children’s literature, especially that with pictures, remains a vital segment in the printed book market today. In the Stora Enso “Future of the Book” study, 98 per cent of respondents cited children’s literature as having an influence on the future of the paper book – half of them calling it a “critical” or positive role, more than double that of any other category. It’s not just children who are diving into books, though. Publishers see possibilities for sales growth in areas like do-it-yourself and complex or lengthy works of fiction. Unusual formats, like books of poetry, or image rich coffee table books focusing on art or photography are likewise to stick around in print.

Electronic and audio books

Still, it wouldn’t be fair to compare electronic books or audiobooks with the real printed deal. “You really can’t compare e-books to printed books,” says Stora Enso’s Essi Lauri. “It’s like apples and oranges; there are different uses for each and publishers know this.

”Consider dictionaries, hard copies of which are slowly going the way of the dinosaur due to their bulk, replaced by always-up-to-date apps. At the same time, readers who love to delve into long, complex narratives like War and Peace will continue getting their copies in print. And lovers of true crime tales might turn to an audiobook to listen to at the gym. There is a format to fit every genre and every occasion. So while it may be true that people are spending less leisure time with a book in hand, the advent of the internet and e-books hasn’t killed off people’s desire to read, just re-shaped how they spend their reading hours. By viewing electronic tools like websites and audiobooks as complementary to their current lists, publishers maintain a strong foothold in the market.

That’s vital today as retailers and publishers see a stagnation in e-book sales ahead. In the US and UK, for example, just 20 per cent of the market consists of e-book sales; in France and Sweden, that number is even lower, at less than 10 per cent – far from the volume needed to put the final nail in the coffin of paper books.

People, it seems, really know what they want when it comes to reading. Nothing beats a book in the hand.