An excellent longish piece in the Guardian this morning by the novelist Lloyd Shepherd argues that the death of books has been greatly exaggerated. As opposed to the armchair philosophizing that most of us who debate this subject are prone to — I include myself in the indictment — Shepherd marshals empirical evidence to back up his claim.
Shepherd points out, for example, that while it is may be true that Barnes & Noble “sells three times as many digital books as all formats of physical books combined,” those numbers are for online sales only. Although it is still losing money, Barnes & Noble reported that book sales in all formats has increased by twenty percent so far this year. And while Amazon now says that it peddles more Kindle-ready texts than hardbacks and paperbacks combined, the sales of printed books are still increasing (the italics are Shepherd’s).
The conventional wisdom is that the price discrepancy between new hardback releases and digital editions at least partly explains why the ebook business is booming. (That’s the reason my wife bought me a Kindle — to cut the family’s book-buying expenses. She was not amused when I quoted Erasmus to the effect that, after buying the books I want, only then do I spend money on food and clothing.) Shepherd wonders if there is not another explanation. After all, most people are content to wait another year for a new book’s paperback release. Is it possible that the relatively less expensive digital version (less expensive than the hardback, at any rate) merely speeds up the process? That the convenience of downloading a book you want to read now is fueling the rise of ebooks?
In other words, the format — text shimmering on the screen of an electronic device versus handheld codex — may have less to do with what is happening than ebook enthusiasts like to think. Look, I am not in the business of predicting the future. My guess is that digital texts in their current format will not fully replace the paper-and-binding books. If even college students, the very population that should be most accustomed to electronic devices, prefer their textbooks in print by three to one, then the codex is not going to disappear any time soon.
What will happen, I imagine, is the emergence of a three-dimensional electronic text, or the invention of devices that make it possible to print one’s own books from source codes that have been downloaded from the internet. The means will evolve, I would bet, to integrate the convenience of etexts with the conceptual advantages of the codex. In any case, the battle between the ebook and the codex is not over. It has barely gotten started.