Are Books Dead?

In the past, we’ve written about the fates of several key technologies that people have used for generations. Paper may be dwindling in demand, but what about traditional books? The publishing industry has been wrapped up in a crazy system of doing business for ages, most notably for its wasteful and inefficient system of dealing with demand.

A book store orders books based on predicted demand. It commits to a specific number of copies that it intends to sell throughout the month. At the end of the month, books that are left unsold may have their front covers removed and get shipped back to the publisher. The publisher will then compensate the book store either partially or wholly (depending on the deal). Then, the book store will place an order for the amount of books it predicts it will sell during the next month. Of course, this isn’t the practice of all or even most book stores, but it happens.

Borders, a one-time giant in the book retail industry, was constantly under critical fire by environmentalist groups for its policy of trashing unsold books rather than keeping them in stock, donating them, or selling them on clearance. Unfortunately, the publisher only asks for the front cover, making the book itself fairly unsellable.

As wasteful as the book industry is, this inefficiency isn’t the biggest threat against its survival. eBook readers such as the Kindle, Nook, and related software available on mobile and desktop platforms are quickly becoming the primary method of literature purchase and consumption for many people today. It’s hard to overlook the convenience and efficiency of having your entire library accessible in seconds on a device that weighs just a few ounces. Further to that, the savings made by the publishing industry after not having to compensate retail stores for unsold merchandise is being passed to the reader through steep discounts available on various eBook sellers across the Web.

Still, there are some advantages to having a physical copy of a good book. For one, real books have no battery to drain. You can literally keep reading it for weeks and months without having to plug anything in (except maybe a light). Reference books are also easier to navigate in physical form. If you’re in need of an example, just try navigating through a Dungeons & Dragons rulebook on a Kindle.

The argument that people don’t read anymore is actually kind of silly. Yes, we can trade statistics that tell the tale of dwindling physical book sales and a growing number of audiobook and movie goers causing written literature to take a plunge, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t reading. Every day, I read roughly 20-30 articles, 10-20 pages out of whatever novel it is I’m enjoying at the time, and listen to an audiobook during my routine chores. It’s not that I’m a very light reader, but the form in which my reading material is available has changed.

Are books dead? No, and I don’t wager they will be anytime soon. They are, however, being augmented by a digital medium that makes it more convenient to enjoy certain types of reading material. Authors can still make a fantastic living by writing brilliant stories, publishers are still turning profits through both paper and electronic copies of their material, and readers are more capable than ever of finding the book they want in whatever format they want to find it in. Well, unless you’re searching for the Harry Potter series.

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