Books: The last man standing

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Books have endured the test of time despite the wave of digitisation happening in the world today (photo credit: MPH)

2By Oon Yeoh

I’ve often referred to books as “the last man standing” – and for good reason. Among the different media types, it’s the one sector that has endured the test of time despite the wave of digitisation happening in the world today.

Most people listen to their music as MP3s and carry them around in mobile phones or iPods. Even CDs, which carry digitised music but house them in a physical medium, are fast fading from the scene. It’s been probably a decade since I last bought a CD. But I downloaded some music just yesterday.

As for movies and TV shows, many urbanites with access to high speed broadband will either stream or download their favourite shows. Some people still buy DVDs or Blu-Rays but those mediums are also starting to become less popular, especially amongst young people who tend to download most of their entertainment content.

But books are amazingly resilient. Many people still prefer their books in print format – and this trend, surprisingly, includes young people.

Although young people seem to be glued to their laptop, tablet and mobile phone screens, which they use to message each other, post up social media updates, listen to music, play games and watch videos, the one activity they still prefer to do offline is yes… reading books!

Voxburner, a British marketing agency, recently reported that in its media consumption survey of 1400 people, between the ages of 16 and 24, found that a whopping 62% of the respondents said they actually preferred printed books to e-books.

“When asked which products currently available for download were preferred as physical objects, 62% agreed with books. Magazines and newspapers collectively had 47% prefer the physical form. Considering magazines are visually more attractive due to their heavy use of images and glossy paper, these statistics show text-heavy books still have an audience with young people,” Voxburner reported.

“I collect”, “I like the smell” and “I want full bookshelves”. These are the kinds of reasons you’d expect older folks would give for their preference for the printed product. But no. Voxburner spokesman, Luke Mitchell, told the Guardian that these were among the reasons young folks gave to the agency’s researchers.

In its report Voxburner speculated that it’s possible young people haven’t experienced the format, still have some warming up to do, or don’t know their smartphone can read e-books. Its spokesman, Mitchell gave the Guardian his own thoughts on the matter: “Books are status symbols; you can’t really see what someone has read on their Kindle.”

If surveys are not convincing, hard data should be. The book category that shows the most impressive growth this year is not e-books but hardcovers. According to the latest statistics from the Association of American publishers, hardcover books are up 10% through the first eight months of 2013 but e-books are down by about 5%.

So far this year, August was the month showing the biggest gains. In August, U.S. book publishers sold nearly US$110 million worth of hardcover books, up a whopping 50% from August a year ago. Meanwhile, over the same month, e-book sales declined by nearly 3%.

Jeremy Greenfield, who writes about e-books for Forbes.com speculated that among other things, this could be due to the fact that a lot of e-book sales growth that happened in 2011 and 2012 happened through best-selling trilogies “Fifty Shades of Grey” and “The Hunger Games”. These books did particularly well as e-books but now those titles are off best-seller lists.

These developments would serve only to confound publishers who are already having a tough enough time trying to figure out the direction the industry is heading towards. On the one hand, they know that e-books have to be the future. Everything else has gone digital. On the other hand, printed books are proving to be remarkably durable.

Books may be the last man standing, indeed, but the tide of technology can’t be resisted for long however, and it would be a mistake for any publisher to cut back on their e-book initiatives. If they wait until e-books reach the tipping point and become the main way people read their books, they would have missed the boat and would have to struggle to keep up.
Oon Yeoh is a new media consultant.

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