Will we see the end of book publishing in America?
The question would have been unthinkable not very long ago. Today, it’s worth asking because there’s the possibility that electronic books will outgrow and replace printed books. The first electronic book reader was introduced in 2006. Five years later e-books began to outsell printed books.
While digital publishing seems to be growing, the printed book industry is continuing its long decline. Countless independent bookstores have vanished from the American landscape, followed by the demise of the Border’s bookstore chain in 2011. Now, most Americans live within driving distance of only one bookstore—Barnes & Noble—and that company’s health is not exactly robust. (The company plans to close 20 of its stores every year for the next decade.)
However, the fear that book publishing will disappear has been around for more than a century. Back in 1958, for example, this fear prompted American Publisher Bennett Cerf to write “Books Are Here To Stay.” He was writing in response to the concern of parents, educators, and publishers that young Americans were becoming addicted to television. Kids, they said, showed no interest in reading but remained glued to the tube all day. Soon the great publishing houses would shut down, they assumed, and books would start to disappear from the American home.
But Cerf saw things differently, and he knew what he was talking about. He had run Random House publishing for 30 years, and could assure Post readers that “publishers cry more easily than anybody else on earth. … To hear them tell it, there’s always something threatening to bankrupt half the publishers extant. Television is merely their latest bugaboo.”
And then, interestingly, Cerf told us several things that were going to destroy publishing before television.
In the 1900s, he said, a New York publisher prophesied that interurban trolley cars would bring about the end of reading in America. The new trolley lines being built in those days allowed Americans to easily commute between the country and the city. They also permitted the youth to go joyriding for a day, taking a trolley from Chicago to Milwaukee, for example, or Philadelphia to Atlantic City, New Jersey. What youngsters, the publisher asked, would be content with books if they could ride for hours in a trolley car?
Even before the interurban lines were bearing youths away from their books, Cerf said, the bicycle was going to kill the book. Young men and women of the 1890s spent all their free time on bicycles, even taking 100-mile, weekend-long rides, leaving them no time or energy to read.
In the first few decades of the 20th century, books faced growing competition from the phonograph, the radio, and the affordable Model T that seemed to consume more and more of the average American’s time.
Yet with all these alternatives to reading, the popularity of books continued to grow. The Book Of The Month Club, founded 83 years ago this month, proved immensely popular. Between 1926 and 1929, membership grew from 2,000 to 100,000.
Today we are far from seeing the end of publishing. More than a million new titles are produced every year, including over 200,000 self-published books. This latter number is misleading, though, since many of these ‘books’ are purely digital and will never see a single sheet of paper.
As we’ve stated before in the Post Perspective, the love of reading and the love of books are not the same thing. The lovers of reading don’t care if they read text out of a book, off a smartphone, or from the back of a cereal box. As long as it’s legible, they’ll enjoy it.
Book lovers, on the other hand, are enchanted by the feel of a cloth binding, the scent of the pages, and crisp, dark type on white paper. They’ll spend fortunes on books, and care for them tenderly, and might even read some of them.
For lovers of reading, the future has never been better. More people are reading and writing than ever before, and the Web offers an endless supply of new, unexpected material. But for book lovers, the future does not look promising. The number of bookstores, and the size of their inventory, are not likely to grow. However, book lovers should take comfort in the fact that no form of entertainment has ever disappeared. The Internet hasn’t replaced television, which didn’t replace radio, which didn’t replace movies, which didn’t replace the theater, etc. Americans are continually rediscovering and reviving old entertainments and crafts.
We will see fewer large-inventory bookstores in the future, but a growth of print-on-demand (POD) publishers. These small, independent operations will print and bind any book of your choice. You can get the title you want in minutes, and the POD operation doesn’t have to pay the costs of maintaining an inventory of unsold titles.
The good news is that book publishing won’t disappear. The better news is that Americans today are reading more than ever.