Pulp Magic

JANUARY 27, 2015

Has the Demise of the Printed Book Been Exaggerated?

Mark Twain, one of the best selling authors in American history, once famously quipped “reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” The same can be said for the printed book and traditional bookstores. According to Publishers Weekly, face-to-face book sales are staging a comeback.

The trade magazine reports that sales of printed books sold through traditional outlets rose 2.4% last year for a total of 635 million units. That increase in sales through bookstores offset a 1.8% decline in sales through the mass merchandiser and online channels. So, online sales of books are declining while physical sales are increasing. That’s certainly a surprise.

Sales of printed books bottomed out in 2012 with the emergence of the e-book and the closure of national retail chains such as Borders. But since then sales have revived. Printed books are not dead after all.

Why the revival? It could be that there are more good books available or maybe more people are buying books at Walmart and Target. But I think people buy real books because they like the feel of them . . . the weight of a book in your lap . . . the texture of a hardcover binding. The feeling of satisfaction when you have turned the last page. Those are all part of the reading experience that’s hard to reproduce with a digital edition. (Although I do appreciate the convenience of my Kindle.)

The work of book publishing is always evolving and remains one of the most quietly innovative sectors of the economy. It always has been. In fact, did you know that Mark Twain became a best selling author because he sold his books through a nationwide network of door-to-door salespeople (mostly Civil War veterans and widows)? Subscription publication was a major industry in 19th century America and it made Mark Twain a household name while giving people in small towns access to big city literature.

So, you see, publishers have always been looking for new ways to quench the public’s thirst of news, ideas, and entertainment.   The coexistence of print and digital is just the latest chapter in an old story that’s far from finished with.