Discussions of whether print is better that digital are always liable to descend into sloganeering. Many people love print. Perhaps more importantly in the circles in which I move, many people make their living one way or another from print books. It often seems that to some of these print boosters an admission that they might even consider reading an e-book is tantamount to taking their finger out of the hole in the dyke — inundation will instantly occur, soaking all that paper and rendering it unusable. A few are willing to admit that their one experience of reading an e-book didn’t actually lead to brain damage, but they insist it was an arid and never-to-be-repeated experience. Wake up! It’s not up to you. Your personal preference is irrelevant. You wouldn’t say “I prefer that the ice in the Arctic Ocean should be at least 2 meters thick” and think that that was a policy to combat global climate change. Why do you think that saying “Print will always survive” is magically going to persuade the marketplace that digital books should be avoided? The market will determine the outcome, not you — unless you pay attention to what the market is telling you.

I almost always find myself agreeing with Joe Esposito, a business-savvy consultant who writes at The Scholarly Kitchen quite frequently. Unsurprisingly I like this piece on the survival of print. He even ends up with one of my bugaboos — the survival of the book manufacturing industry is rather important to book publishers who’d like to see print continue, but by no means is it assured. If we hang around till the half-life of all categories of book has been reached, then I suspect there won’t be a surviving book manufacturing industry bearing any resemblance to what we accept as normal today.

As he says, print versus digital isn’t an either-or question, and thinking of it in those terms closes the mind to realistic policy options. Those who think (nay, know) that printed books are better will eventually have to put their money where their mouths are and just charge more for the privilege of enjoying the print experience. Is this so terrible? Can you come up with a single argument as to why the world will be a worse place if 95% of people read the latest bestseller on a digital device while the remaining 5% are paying a substantial premium to retain that old-fashioned relationship to the product?

Categories of book where print looks like it may remain more resilient are academic monographs, children’s books, poetry, the Bible, gift-books (if that really is a definable category) — and damned if I can think of any others! Maybe textbooks, though I suspect that students’ reluctance to engage with e-textbooks will eventually be beaten out of them: publishers are simply investing too much for them to allow students to keep on buying or renting used print textbooks. Once the professors say “Buy the e-text”, the e-text will be bought. Mr Esposito would include art books based upon his (wrong to my mind) belief that “Display technology continues to lag behind high-quality color printing”. Anyone who has worked on trying to achieve “museum-quality” reproduction of artworks will know the importance of light conditions. We spend a lot of time striving to ensure that the printed piece matches the photographic original, but few publishers if any are checking how close that original photo is to the picture in the art gallery. And anyway, should it be close to the picture in the art gallery on a cloudy day or a day of bright sunshine; in the morning or the late afternoon? As far as I’m concerned the picture shown in a Google search is as likely to be “accurate” as the reproduction in the most expensive art book, and there will probably be several different versions to choose from. Just as in the gallery there will be several different “versions” of the original picture, all dependent of the time of day and the lighting source when you look at it. As I wrote previously “At Macmillan USA we had a color proofing room painted in the neutral grey and using the light source agreed by the industry to be the “standard”. This might mean that the proof really did match the original photo, but nobody could drag the whole room to the museum where the original painting hung in order to check how closely that matched the photo, and thus the proof. And of course you can hardly demand that your readers only look at the finished book in a room lit by the same standard light source and painted the same grey.” And it’s not like you can study details like brush work in a printed reproduction in an art book anyway. Still maybe art books will prove a resilient and conservative print category — not everyone is as cynical as me — and if people are willing to pay a premium they should of course be able to get what they want. But beware that the premium to be paid isn’t recognized as being ideally the cost of going to the museum in question and looking at the original. We are not dealing with sentiment here; we are dealing with realities.

Print is of course the ideal medium for lots of things (just maybe not several categories of book!) and the paper industry is not allowing the world to remain in ignorance about these things. Paper because . . . is a campaign, originated by Domtar, to promote public awareness of the benefits of paper and printed goods. There are some nice short videos at their site. I hope their campaign is a great success.

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