From Books to Ebooks and Back: The Future of Literary Consumption Is Unwritten

News from the Association of American Publishers that digital sales have dropped by ten percent in the first five months of 2015 has prompted big publishing to build and expand warehouse space for print books. But it isn’t just the precipitous decline in sales that is driving publishing back to the arms of print. Increasingly, readers — including young readers — prefer a mix of digital and print books, with a tendency to favor the latter.

It remains to be seen whether the renegotiation of contracts with Amazon, who has cornered around 65 percent of the ebook market, was what led to the decline. Publishers fought and won the ability to raise ebook prices, sometimes charging as much for digital copies as hardcover print versions.

On the other hand, we won’t likely know until next year whether publishing has achieved a healthier balance between print and digital, one that leads perhaps to improved overall sales.

Either way, the resurgence of print was never a given — few announced its impending arrival. Quite the contrary, a surfeit of doomsayers saw in the arrival of ebooks and ebook readers — the sales of which dropped by eight million last year — the end of print or at least the demise of given literary forms, like the novel.

“This is the question,” novelist Will Self wrote in the Guardian last year, “if you accept that by then the vast majority of text will be read in digital form on devices linked to the web, do you also believe that those readers will voluntarily choose to disable that connectivity? If your answer to this is no, then the death of the novel is sealed out of your own mouth.”

Of course, “disabling connectivity” by turning back to print is precisely what readers have done. But this comes as no surprise to Andrés Neuman, author of the novel Traveler of the Century and the story collection The Things We Don’t Do, who takes the long view.

“There is nothing capable of destroying literary needs,” Neuman said last weekend at the Brooklyn Book Festival. “When I need to have a slow, joyful experience, I prefer a printed book. When I’m just reading the text partially to search for things, I use ebooks.”

He added: “I don’t see why we should choose. We will have both forever. This old device called the printed book has lasted a few crises already.”

Others, like poet and fiction writer Naja Marie Aidt, author of Baboon and Rock, Paper, Scissors, see ebooks as an almost inferior technology — especially when it comes to poetry.

“One thing that I really don’t like to read on screen is poetry; it’s more physical,” Aidt said at the festival. “There is so little text on the page, and I do like the physical feeling of holding the book.

“When you read a printed book, it’s easier to stay on the same page for a long period of time. When you read a digital book, you want to move from page to page. And with poetry you need to see the form — you need to see more than you can see on digital pages.”

Still others are defiantly optimistic about the future of ebooks. Even as it shuttered this week, the subscription service Oyster (once called “the Netflix of ebooks”) professed its faith in ebook technology — especially as read on mobile devices, which are increasingly the digital platform of choice.

“We believe more than ever that the phone will be the primary reading device globally over the next decade,” Oyster wrote in a statement on its website. “Looking forward, we feel this is best seized by taking on new opportunities to fully realize our vision for ebooks.”

Whether mobile phones become the literary device of choice, whether e-readers bounce back or some unforeseen “disruptive” technology emerges, the now steady to precipitous decline in ebook sales will likely mitigate (for now) doom-and-gloom prophesying about literature and its future. The overall health of literature is not determined by its platform, as the novelist László Krasznahorkai, winner of the 2015 Man Booker International Prize, explained this weekend.

“Devices are not dangerous for literature,” Krasznahorkai said. “People can be dangerous for literature. People, for example, who do not read.”