Print’s Premature Obituary (long live books!)
I love books. I don’t just mean the stories; I love actual books. I find them bewitching: their weight in my hands, the creak of the spine as they’re opened, the musty smell, the gentle swish of a page turning.
I keep hearing that print is dying, which always causes an involuntarily spasm of panic. I’m just about to start shopping my first novel around to publishers and agents. That’s paralyzing enough.
But when I’m standing on the edge of parties, sipping a glass of wine and silently, strongly willing myself to fit in, the conversation inevitably turns to the changing face of technology. Print is so dead, someone will say, and others will quickly chime in with e-book statistics, the number of magazines that have been bought, sold, and gone belly up, and I feel my pulse quicken.
Eventually someone will remember I’m there and, turning to me, ask a series of increasingly debilitating questions: “Oh wait, you’re writing a book, aren’t you? How are you going to get your book published? Are you going to self-publish?”
I mumble my standard reply, that I haven’t really thought about it yet, that thinking about navigating that particular minefield makes me want to curl up in a ball under my desk and rock back and forth, but that’s okay; I hear Steinbeck did the same thing.
Silence. And then publishing horror stories start being bandied about with the same contorted glee people take in telling pregnant women about their close friend who went through 57 hours of painkiller-free labor before being split in two. “I had a friend, he wrote 74 books, didn’t get any of them published. I mean, he wallpapered his bedroom in rejection notices. Even the self-publishing site turned him down. Terribly sad.”
“What does he do now?”
“Oh, he’s taken a job in marketing…”
And I’ll excuse myself, trying to quell my palpitating heart. Later, post-party, when I’m back at home in my cocktail dress, nylons and slippers, I’ll do a frantic Google search to make sure print is still alive, that I haven’t missed its obituary, that I haven’t missed my chance to get one of my stories published.
If you’ve done a search on the death of print, the headlines are conflicting at best, and they aren’t reassuring. I just did a web search five minutes ago and these two snippets appeared one after the other:
“Book publishing as we know it is dying. Publishers don’t want to recognize this reality, because they can’t imagine what else they’ll do for a living once their companies collapse. But collapse they will, and here’s why.” – Michael Levin
“My New Year’s resolution is to stop reading those “death of publishing as we know it” articles, because they don’t affect me. I’m going to keep writing, for as long as I can.” – Melanie Benjamin
But if you dig underneath headlines, a couple of misconceptions keep cropping up.
1) “Publishing” can refer to print media, books, or both. A lot of the research that’s being touted is actually from print media, rather than books. (That’s still a serious concern of mine, but one panic attack at a time.)
2) A lot of the reporting uses Amazon statistics stating their e-books are outselling their print books. As a massive purveyor of electronic material, this may well be the case, but it doesn’t necessarily reflect the global reality.
Keep digging, and The New York Times and the Harvard Business Review both reported that print books are back on the rise in the U.S. It’s not a meteoric rise, but print books are at least holding strong, while e-books are declining.
Publishers have had to adapt quickly with tricks like faster delivery to keep up with customer demands, but that also reduces their overhead of unsold books, as they can place smaller orders and simply keep restocking with demand.
I’m not saying print is untouchable, and certainly new technology will come along, but perhaps print will ride the wave. My palpitating heart certainly hopes so.
I’ll never be an e-reader, no matter how convenient. I spend too much time reading on-screen as it is, and I get too much enjoyment from tangible books. It’s that bewitching, tactile sensation that settles me in for a reading session, it helps me transport into the story. And I get too much satisfaction from gently closing the cover when I’ve finished a book, quietly saying goodbye to the characters, often saddened that the journey I’ve taken with them is ended.
As long as they keep making books, I’ll keep buying them.
I own a lot of books. (The word ‘addiction’ has been muttered in the presence of my bookcases more than once.) I usually read about 14 books annually, along with the two books I read every year: To Kill a Mockingbird (my favourite book; every word is perfect) and The Lord of the Rings, a habit I fell into when I was 14, after hearing my uncle talk about the book. (I start it every Thanksgiving and usually finish around Christmas.)
The books on my shelf are old friends; I tend to read two or three new books and then reacquaint myself with an old favourite. Since I take my books with me everywhere, I usually find stubs of plane tickets, grains of sand, wine stains, or scraps of paper with my own scribbled ideas tucked into the margins. These forgotten tokens provide instant flashbacks to where I was and what I was doing when I was reading that book, the stories forever entangled with a memory.
I bend page corners when I read something striking, often marking the passage with a pencil line in the margin so I can easily refer back to it. And I always use a bookmark of parchment my older sister gave me 20 years ago to mark my place. It looks like a scrimshaw carving, with an outline of a masted ship sailing the oceans.
Selecting a book to read is a ritual in itself, whether it’s from the library, a bookstore, or my own shelf. It’s such a vital ritual to me that I’ve dedicated a little section on my blog page to what I’m reading now, and I’m going to keep posting my ‘reading now’ selections on social media. Other people might be posting envy-stirring holiday selfies, but I’ve chosen my next book to read!!
I like taking my time choosing, studying the spines, pulling a book from the shelf to read the story summary or author bio. I prefer to be alone, or at least with someone who understands how powerful and precious this ritual is to me – someone who will leave me alone to get on with it, but who will also share in my blistering excitement of a rare discovery.
Second-hand bookstores are treasure troves for these kinds of discoveries. Give me a hidden loft or tucked away back-alley bookshop with leather armchairs, dust motes and the smell of old, leather-bound books and I’m in heaven.
I hope print isn’t dying. A not insignificant part of me would die with it. But horses for courses, I think: e-reading has its place for convenience and expediency, but books are pure magic.