Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Testing Times for the Printed Page

It is a question that has been mulled by many; sitting in the office while scrolling down, or riding the underground with a LondonLitelyinteresting, or flipping through that glossy mag, or even curled comfortably, captured by the words on paper pages being turned by calm fingers. It is a question laced with ominous undertones. Is the internet going to destroy print?

Jeff Jarvis, journalist and blogger, certainly thinks so. He wrote on, his controversial blog, that books, “Are frozen in time without the means of being corrected or updated.” He continued his diatribe: “They are expensive. They can’t afford to serve the real mass of niches. They aren’t searchable [or] linkable. They carry no conversation.” A pertinent point: “They try to teach readers but don’t teach authors.”

In Fast Company, a glossy business magazine, Jarvis makes a point that rings loudly at this time when Whos Jack has recently made the move to print: “Is our conversation better for being on this slick paper? No it’s not because only two of us are in it when we know that the collective wisdom of the people holding this page is greater than our own. We should be having this conversation together.”

Although holding weight, I think his arguments miss some points. Apart from economical / ecological issues, I see no problem with print being “frozen in time”. In fact I consider it a benefit. Opinions and ideas change over time and one can gain a deeper understanding of an author by how they evolve. If the articles are deleted from the internet due to vanity or politics, the reader will be denied this.

Saying books “Carry no conversation” is like saying watching sport carries no conversation. Neither offer a chance of audience reciprocation but they do offer something to think about, put faith in and, indeed, have a conversation about. Viewers absorb both sport and text and, if they are interested in what they are watching or reading, they will want to talk to others about the subject. Authors’ opinions offer something to think about and it only shows a lack of maturity in the reader if they accept what is written without question.

But is print currently in decline?

A survey from the National Endowment for the Arts, in the USA, had a shock effect back in 2004 when they published results claiming that, “Literary reading is in dramatic decline with fewer than half of American adults reading literature.” The survey also found that there had been a fall in literature readers of 10 per cent between 1982 and 2002. The then NEA chairman, Dana Gioia, mongered some fear with the stark claim that the findings, “Document a national crisis”.

Could this represent an international trend and does it signify an ailing print industry? Apparently not. A Publishers Weekly article documented that commercial publishers worldwide published 39 per cent more books in 2007 than 2006. Elementary economics suggests this is responding to a higher demand. Furthermore, according to UNESCO, new titles published in the UK had risen by 28 per cent in 2005-06 (although in the ‘States they had indeed dropped by 18 per cent). The UK now leads the world in number of books published per annum.

Electronic book readers and ebooks have proven themselves to be popular, with over 30 000 readers and more than 100 000 ebooks being sold by Waterstones bookstore since the store first stocked the range in September of last year. The Amazon Kindle, an ebook reader sold exclusively on, apparently sold out within five and a half hours when it was released in the USA in November 2007. The device shows pages from books and newspapers, which are purchased and downloaded. Now in its third generation, the gadget has proven to be immensely popular. Sites such as allow users to download from a selection of more than 100 000 ebooks, with over 30 000 of them for no charge.

But these stats don’t imply that a majority will forget about paper books altogether. A spokesman for Waterstones bookstore was vague about whether the company felt the ebook to be a real threat to the traditional book: “Books as we know them have been around for hundreds of years and we expect them to be around for many more to come. Ebooks offer another way to enjoy them and we anticipate that books in both print and electronic form can look forward to a long future.”

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