Should Guttenberg Be Afraid?

One of the first things I hear from almost anyone who finds out I am a publisher is a grave expression of empathy that conventional books are on their way out. The media’s focus on skyrocketing e-book growth – whether Kindle, iPad, Nook or others – amplified by music’s breathtaking drop in physical CD sales, drives many (even fellow publishers) to jump to the conclusion that the end is near for the paper-and-ink book. Not so fast!

Witness the May 19, 2011 report by the Association of American Publishers (AAP). Based on data gathered from 84 publishers, both print and digital formats of books saw revenue gains in March 2011 compared to the same period in 2010. In fact, religion books in March grew for the third month in a row, increasing 27.4%. Growth in book sales came despite a staggering 145.7% increase in e-book sales. That’s not to say general economic woes won’t periodically depress books sales, or all retail for that matter, as was the case in 2009. Yet, even with Borders liquidating, I’m generally encouraged.

Here’s what I suspect: e-books are lighting a fire under book reading, feeding a new excitement about literature of all kinds. There are hints that e-reading consumers are not only downloading digital books but are continuing to buy physical books at a surprising rate. Better still, the Kaiser Family Foundation Study reports an upswing in reading among the 18- to 28-year-old demographic (Publishers Weekly, January 21, 2010). And we thought Boomers were the last generation of rabid book readers.

For one, I’m excited about the future of books. Neither the movie industry, nor cable TV, electronic games, nor the Internet have done much violence to reading. If anything, they may have given books a lift. That’s good news for books, and even better news for faith and culture.

It’s true that we don’t know exactly what the publishing industry will look like five or ten years from now. Change is inevitable. But I choose to believe that technology is our friend, and that if authors and publishers are on the same page – viewing technology as an opportunity to connect with a healthy marketplace –it’s a big win-win for all concerned.

Call me crazy, but I believe it’s way too early for Gutenberg to be rolling over in his grave.

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