Under this headline David Boyle writes in The Guardian of 31 December about how all the new technologies seem to be coming to a halt, being replaced by old ones. He starts:

“Two peculiar counter-intuitive facts about the digital world this year. First, sales of computer tablets have been on the slide. Second, even less predictably, sales of ebooks – at least in the summer – were down by a quarter on two years before, while sales of print books have been rising.                                                                                                             I know, it’s the big trends that are important, but it is strange nonetheless that digital technology is not sweeping all before it. Real books were certainly supposed to have been consigned to the secondhand shop – Ikea was even said to have redesigned its children’s bookcase in the light of the decline in books.                                The French historian Jean Gimpel predicted something along these lines just before he died in 1996. In fact he went further, hailing the glorious return of many of those technologies we regard as somehow more ‘real’ and which were supposed to have been driven out. And he was right: trams, cycling, brick and timber-framed houses, cotton and natural fibres have all been creeping back, just as he said. To which you might add other defunct technologies that refuse to lie down and die, like vinyl records, where sales are at an 18-year high.”

This is not much more than the usual straw-man bashing. The extreme take-up of new technologies to the exclusion of their predecessors is something that the commentariat loves to witter on about. I’m surprised he doesn’t mention the buggy-whip — I’m sure a few de-luxe buggy whips are still being produced. But nobody with feet on ground should ever believe the commentariat. No doubt I could deconstruct his food claims (who ever said we’d all be eating spaceman food by now?), but I’ll stick to my last and look at the book bits. “Real books were certainly supposed to have been consigned to the secondhand shop” he says; but who among us really supposed this? He’s certain about it though. About 70% of book sales continue to be in print, not e-book form, and most of my colleagues are exclusively involved in wrestling print books to the finish line, just as they always have been. Still, if you want to write a striking article, it’s obviously a good idea to make extreme claims. Your readership, being mostly on the outside, will have no idea whether your claims are right or wrong. Heck, even in the link he provides to Ikea and their new “bookcase”, Ikea themselves comment that their redesign should not be seen as making any judgement about the survival of books. And of course it should be obvious that this new, deeper bookcase design is only one among dozens of different Ikea bookcase offerings.

Jean Gimpel! OK, he may carry more weight than I do — but just because he believed that medieval technology was what should be introduced into the developing world, should I regard this as evidence supporting the contention that the print book should or should not survive in a digital world? A large enough public which wants print books will ensure their continued supply, not a medieval historian’s exhortations. “Trams, cycling, brick and timber-framed houses, cotton and natural fibres have all been creeping back, just as he [Gimpel] said.” Creeping back? Where did they ever go? The trams we have today are nothing like the trams that were taken out in the fifties and sixties. I wasn’t aware that the cotton shirts I’d been wearing all those years were in fact not cotton at all. (Actually we learned at Crane Paper Co. that almost all cotton garments nowadays do actually have a small addition of man-made fibers of one kind or another, which makes “cotton rags” unsuitable for use in making the paper for our currency because it just costs too much to separate it out.) I’m surprised Mr Boyle doesn’t point out that in spite of the invention of the bicycle and the car we humans remain able to use our legs and walk! Or maybe that’s another old technology that’s surprisingly coming back.

Publishers Weekly falls into the same trap, heading their 2 January story “For Books, Print is Back”. It never went away, PW. The story shows that print book sales were up 2.4% during 2014: it contains no numbers for e-book sales. They did report recently on a dip in the rate of e-book sales though. This is all good news for print aficionados. However if you study the breakdown of sales at the bottom of the “For Books, Print is Back” story you’ll find that a couple of significant sectors are indeed down: Adult fiction and Mass-market paperbacks both show declines. These are of course the very areas where e-book penetration has been (and I believe will continue to be) most successful. Is it really true that there’s a rebalancing of print vs. e-book sales, or are we just at a sort of resting point, a plateau in the evolution of the digital world? Time will tell. Personally I’d expect Adult fiction to become more e-book heavy, with print holding its own in other segments.

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