Monday, April 21, 2014

Print is here to stay.

With the introduction of the e-book and tablet readers, many people are predicting the demise of printed media in the near future. However, I do not see such a Bradburian doomsday for the printed word. In fact, when looking at the current climate, there are many reasons for pessimists to reassess their half-empty glasses.

To see a brighter future, it is first necessary to look to the past. In his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, Neil Postman notes that the United States is unique in that it was founded in the age of the printed word. In fact, it was one of the most literate countries in the world. This “Typographic America,” as Postman calls it, was integral to a democratic system because it was the only means of communication across a vast landscape. Just think: how would a democracy work in a country where citizens could not read the laws or understand their very freedom? The very size of the country would also make any sort of verbal discourse across states next to impossible! This foundation on the printed word still remains today. The problem with foundations, however, is they are hidden under everything else.

Today, media is overwhelmingly dominated by screens. But if one would behind those screens, he would see a thriving typographic landscape. Let’s start with the e-book, the printed word’s latest arch nemesis. Since 2008, e-book sales have grown 4456%, an alarming number to be sure; at least until one considers the fact that they still only make up 20% of all sales. Last year (2013), e-book sales grew by 43%, which is another healthy number except that it is the first time in three years that they have not grown by triple digits. One last statistic: 457 million e-books were sold last year compared to 557 million print books, but that is just hardcover! Finally, polls have shown that millennials—those people that are supposed to be so plugged into their screens—still overwhelmingly prefer physical print.

That’s not all the good news lurking behind the screen, however. According to the Internet Movie Database (IMDB), more than two hundred movies coming out will be based on books this year alone. While those pessimists might point to this as a sign of the cannibalization of print as a medium, I find it quite comforting. This is mostly because these big movies actually drive book sales, and not just for the juggernauts like the Rowlings and Sparkses of the world; a new trend has emerged in the past couple years where studios are optioning promising novels before they are even published. So in a way, films and television function as multi-million dollar book trailers.

Speaking of television, it too can drive book sales; shows like True Detective and Game of Thrones have proven this. True Detective is an especially interesting case because it shows how different media can feed on each other and boost sales and ratings. The show centers on two detectives trying to solve a cult murder, with the twist that the mythos of this cult is based on the book The King in Yellow, written by Robert W. Chambers and published in 1895. But the show never mentions this. Instead, it took io9, an online blog, to point out the fact. The end result was a significant spike in sales of the book through Amazon.

The future of print can rely on screens, and vice versa. So, while printed books will never be as powerful or popular as they once were, there is reason to believe that the foundation is here to stay. Now take another look at your glass.

by Ian Burnham, intern

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