The death of paper

April 12, 2019 History

The death of paper, argues technology writer Nicholas Carr, has been greatly exaggerated. This is an old trend: a new medium pops up, be it the radio or television or the Internet, and some speculate that the book or newspaper or magazine is surely doomed. When e-readers and tablets and e-books arrived, their popularity seemed to be a death sentence for hardbacks and paperbacks. But, writes Carr, that sentence won’t be carried out anytime soon.

“E-book sales, which skyrocketed after the launch of Amazon’s Kindle in late 2007, have fallen back to earth in recent months—they rose by just 5 percent in the first quarter of this year, according to publishers’ reports—while sales of hardcovers and trade paperbacks have remained surprisingly resilient,” he writes in the article Paper Versus Pixel. According to Carr’s research, paper books still make up 75 percent of book sales in the United States. And that’s not counting the used book market, which is also on an upswing.

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So why does this really matter? Unless you’re a fanatic of the digital or printed word, knowing the economic trends of the industry isn’t especially important. But this is: There’s a very real difference between reading a paper book and reading a digital one, whether it’s on an LCD or an e-ink screen. According to some studies, physical books actually help us retain information better. Our brains simply react to printed words differently than digital ones.

“Some scientists believe that our brain actually interprets written letters and words as physical objects—a reflection of the fact that our minds evolved to perceive things, not symbols,” writes Carr. “The physical presence of the printed pages, and the ability to flip back and forth through them, turns out to be important to the mind’s ability to navigate written works, particularly lengthy and complicated ones. We quickly develop a mental map of the contents of a printed text, as if its argument or story were a voyage unfolding through space. If you’ve ever picked up a book that you read long ago and discovered that your hands were able to locate a particular passage quickly, you’ve experienced this phenomenon.”

The spatial awareness Carr cites improves our understanding of what we read. Simply put, physical books are better for reading comprehension. Digital books offer their own advantages, of course. But it looks like Carr’s ode to the history of paper is right: Print still isn’t going anywhere.

While no one can be sure how the pattern of e-book sales will develop in the future, the digital revolution has already had an enormous impact on the way the publishing industry works. In what Thompson calls “the hidden revolution”, the processes involved in taking a text through the supply chain, from author to reader, have been thoroughly transformed. Print-on-demand means that a book never goes out of print and with the advent of self-publishing anyone can publish.

“This means that the numbers of books being published and the number available, have risen dramatically. But how do readers get to know about what’s out there? New platforms have emerged to supplement the traditional model of the newspaper review,” he says.

The rise of Amazon has played a major part in these developments. “Amazon is part and parcel of the digital revolution. The company started in a garage as a classic internet start-up and its ascendancy took everyone by surprise,” says Thompson. Publishers have benefited from Amazon’s growth but they now find themselves locked in a power struggle with the retail giant, who controls around 67% of all e-book sales in the USA and over 40% of all new book unit sales, print and digital.

Relations have become increasingly fraught, he says. Publishers have tried to retain control of pricing by selling e-books on an ‘agency model’, which allows them to fix the price, while Amazon has used its growing market share to try to extract better terms of trade from publishers. The struggle ebbs and flows and at times becomes vicious, as it did during the 2014 standoff between Amazon and Hachette (one of the Big Five US trade publishers).

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