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Long Live Reading, Digitally and in Print

Jul 23, 2010

Friday, July 23, 2010

By Vanessa Horwell

Earlier this week, Amazon announced that for the first time, electronic books for the Amazon Kindle have outsold hardcover books. The online bookseller averaged 143 Kindle book sales for every 100 hardcover copy sales over the last three months. WOW.

Cue the wailing and gnashing of teeth over the impending death of print. And with it some other things, you know, like cultural literacy, Western civilization, and all knowledge.

Although I own a Kindle (and most recently an iPad), I have hung onto the (obviously) antiquated notion that the tactile sensation of a book in your hands (or, for that matter, of a newspaper spread between them) contributes to the experience of reading. So I am sympathetic to the fear that books will become obsolete; should that happen, a sizable chunk of me will become obsolete right along with them.

But I don’t see that happening.

I was watching Ghostbusters not longer ago, and in a great scene Harold Ramis’s character announces to Annie Potts’s harried secretary that “print is dead.” (This, for fans, is just before Spengler tells her that he collects “molds, spores and fungus” as a hobby. Classic.) The point is, Ghostbusters came out in 1984- more than 25 years ago. Not to make Ramis and Dan Aykroyd (the writers) out to be bad prophets, but print still isn’t dead, despite the tremendous advances in technology that might have rendered it such. I’d bet it continues to survive at least for another generation. Or three.

The Amazon announcement doesn’t refute this belief, either. Look closer at the figures, and you realize that they don’t account for paperback sales, which make up the bulk of Amazon’s total book shipments. They also don’t mention the fact that Amazon is aggressively promoting e-books, to facilitate sales of its Kindle, offering electronic titles for as little as $0.99, versus the $9.99 price of a hardcover new release. And let’s not forget that Amazon is only one retailer. They make a good barometer, to be sure, but as the dominant online bookseller, Amazon is in a better position to facilitate the sale of e-books than a brick-and-mortar bookstore with an ancillary website. All of this indicates that the popularity of e-books is indeed growing, but not necessarily that print is doomed.

If print was doomed, if this did mark the first death throe of the beloved book, would that really spell the end of life as we know it? I’m not so sure. E-books facilitate reading, and in certain circumstances can enhance it. They aren’t printed on bundles of dead trees. They are easier to obtain, particularly through Amazon.

Regardless of the ratio of e-books to hardcover to paperback, the figure that’s forgotten is that Amazon sold more written material this quarter than last. More people are reading. More people are buying authors’ work. More people are interested in divining the wisdom deep within a book.

These are positive developments, and we should recognize them as such.

So let’s not sound the death knell for books quite yet, and let’s not fret quite so much about what happens when we must.

In the meantime, I’m going down to the local Waterstone’s bookstore (in Richmond, London) to grab the Stieg Larsson trilogy for both of my kids.

Vanessa Horwell is Chief Visibility Officer at ThinkInk. She works with companies in the U.S., UK and Europe to improve their visibility through strategic public relations and new media channels. Reach her at vanessa@thinkinkpr.com.

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