Sometimes technology doesn’t always win. It was recently reported that ebook sales in Britain are dropping at an alarming rate, with the sales of consumer titles down almost a fifth during the previous year, as print books hit a five-year high.
Sales of consumer books have plunged 17% to £204m in the past year, the lowest since 2011 and the arrival of the Amazon Kindle’s dominance on UK shores. Children’s books are the big winner here, with printed consumer titles rising almost 9% to £1.55bn, with the total UK print book market rising by 8% to a five-year high of £3bn.
But why is this happening? Surely the ebook is the Vorpal Blade of the literary world? Why must paper persist? The answer, to me at least, lies with what happens when we use them.
An ebook just doesn’t carry the same sensation as a paperback. The phenomenal qualities just aren’t as rich; the smell, textures, and the raw emotional sensations that come with the text just don’t exist within these a cold, plastic lumps. When I read a book, it feels as if I am reading something, as opposed to just reading text. There’s a sense of agency, a presence, that I have yet to experience with any digital alternative. You can’t perform with a Kindle. There is no tradition, no heritage, and no elegance to its script. There are no pages to flip, no spines to examine and negotiate with, or shelves of options to peruse. It’s there, and that’s all there is. When I hold it and turn it on, all I am granted is a body of text. That’s all there is.
I feel nothing, and of course, the phenomenology of the book is not the sole reason for this decline. Mobile phones and tablets play a role in this too. As screens expand and resolutions improve, the need for a second device to read on diminishes. The size of these devices has become far more accommodating for this activity, and thus we simply don’t require a second. What’s more, a book can be disposed of, whereas an ebook reader can’t be. It doesn’t even really matter if you leave it behind, although I wouldn’t advocate this behaviour.
When the Kindle launched a decade ago, it was a revelation. The opportunity to carry hundred of books around with you seemed like a miracle. Within five hours of its initial launch, it sold out. And that was it. There was never anything else to it. The Kindle, and its competitors, haven’t moved. The experience remains almost identical. Furthermore, unlike the ebook, physical books have managed to up their game in a meaningful fashion. The books we buy today are generally of a far higher quality than what we picked up at the turn of the millennium. The coating is more generous, and the pages once more receive quality treatment. Hardbacks even carry their own designs beneath their covers, a rarity in just over a decade ago.
the book has remained timeless because that is what it is
Nowadays, the ebook simply looks old-tech, ancient, worn-out, and, factoring the combined price of reader and individual story, just as expensive. The book, meanwhile, has remained timeless because that is what it is. This is because it carries a design that has been with us for millennia. An old, worn Penguin carries a sense of prestige with it, a new Folio edition demands respect, but a Kindle is simply another purchase.
A new book can be art in both verbal and visual forms. An ebook can only succeed in the latter.