Updated: Dec 2, 2020
Though technology tends to disrupt industries that remain stagnant for too long, it seems one industry is relatively impervious to evolution; the art of storytelling through physical books. This is surprising, as you would think a $26 billion industry (2019 revenues to publishers in the U.S. across all formats, per the Association of American Publishers' annual report) would be a prime target for disruption.
We first started really hearing about digital readers and how they would lead to the extinction of books in the early 2010’s, with people citing their ease and accessibility as its appeal. They experienced a few years of growth leading to some panic for old school publishers, however sales of digital books peaked in 2014, and since then have started to decline. The Publishing Association reported e-book sales fell by 17% in 2016, while sales of physical books actually rose by 8% over that time.
Looking at the total $26b of publishers’ revenues in 2019, digital books accounted for just $2b of that, with physical books representing the lion’s share of $22.6b. It's estimated that 65% of U.S. adults read a physical book in 2019, while only 25% read an e-book in 2019. This actually represents an increase in the % of people that read a physical book since 2015, while the % of people that read an e-book has declined.
While you would typically assume that it would be the younger generations dumping the old paper book for the new digital option, surprisingly enough it’s been quite the opposite. Looking at the US in 2017, 75% of people ages 18 to 29 said they read a physical book, much higher than the national average of 67%, according to Pew Research.
So, with so many new and advanced reading methods out there, why are people still opting for physical books? How could a technology that has remained relatively unchanged for thousands of years continue to be so dominant over new and exciting alternatives? Granted we’re a bit biased, but here are our 8 reasons why physical books are better than their digital counterparts:
1) Certain books just don’t translate over well into digital books
This one’s pretty simple, but there are certain genres of books that are just better off being told through a physical book. The best example of this is children’s fiction books, a staple of the book industry. Reading a classic bedtime story just doesn’t have the same feel (for both the parent and child) if it's being read on a digital device. There's nothing like being able to turn each page of a bedtime story along with your child, watching the story unfold in front of their eyes.
2) People like to display what they read
Just as people love to show off beautiful artwork, displaying a collection of books can transform a room. Not only will it give the owners a sense of pride and beauty, but it can also be a great conversation starter with guests as they identify familiar titles on the shelves. Having your own library also allows you to exchange books with friends, something that just isn’t possible with a digital reader!
Interestingly enough, the period of decline for physical books coincides rather closely with the aftermath of the financial crisis. Sure part of this had to do with a reduction in disposable income, but it was also during this time when publishers engaged in cost-cutting measures to boost margins, saving money by reducing investment in the aesthetics of the physical book. As publishers have gotten back to investing in the beauty of the book, the demand for physical books has once again started to grow.
3) Local bookstores are awesome!
It’s tough to really explain the feeling you get when stepping into an authentic local bookstore. From the smell to the feel to the overall nostalgia factor (and the perfect spot for that IG post), it's like you’re transported to a different world. While the fall of the major bookstores is certainly troublesome (thanks a lot Amazon), it’s great to see local bookstores alive and well, growing by 35% in the US between 2009 and 2015. The Guardian reported a similar independent bookstore resurgence in the UK, growing in 2018 for the first time since the advent of Amazon.
4) You just connect better with physical books
It's been shown that readers absorb more and have a better connection with a story when it's read via a physical book. Print readers tend to score higher in areas such as empathy, immersion and general understanding of the narrative, compared to those who read the same story through a tablet or other device.
Scientists believe this is related to the sensation of actually holding the book in your hands, as you can physically see your progress. This is due to the fact that our brains are much better at recalling things when they have an actual sense of where they occurred on a specific page or paragraph. Being that events in a print book occur in different locations throughout the book (as opposed to the same screen on an e-reader), you're retention will be much higher with the old school option.
People also tend to take shortcuts when reading on digital devices, jumping from keyword to keyword, which greatly impacts your retention of the story. When you read a physical book, you’re much more likely to read in complete sentences. This helps you absorb the nuances of language and the intricate parts of the characters' emotional journeys, which are essential for appreciating any good story.
5) You’re less likely to get distracted
With internet access just one click away on digital readers, even the most disciplined of us are likely to get distracted. What may begin as a quick break to check your email can lead to the reader getting sucked into a wild internet rabbit hole. Even just switching away from the story for a few minutes can impact your ability to understand on what you're reading, as it takes time to refocus and immerse yourself into the story every time you switch away. It’s for this reason that it’s recommended to keep your phone and other devices out of reach when cracking open a good book.
6) They’re easier on the eyes
With how much time we spend stuck behind a computer, TV, or our phone, it’s important to give our eyes a break to “escape the screen” any chance we get. This has become more important than ever with so many of us working remotely due to the COVID pandemic, as our bodies just aren't meant to spend that much time staring at artificially generated images on a daily basis. Absorbing too much blue-light can lead to “screen fatigue”, which may cause things such as blurred vision, eye strain, redness, headaches, dryness and irritation. Physical books provide the perfect opportunity to give your eyes a break from all that screen time.
Using e-readers at night is also likely to severely interrupt your natural sleep schedule. The artificial blue light emitted will reduce on your melatonin production and throw off your circadian rhythm, impacting both the quality and time it takes you to fall asleep. But if you remove the blue light element then the activity of reading in bed is actually great for helping you fall asleep, as it calms your mind and relaxes your body. This helps you get ready to fall asleep at the end of the night, and can also provide a great remedy for the occasional insomnia or restlessness nights.
This was demonstrated in a Harvard Medical School study, which tracked participants that read before bed using both an iPad and physical books over a 2 week period. The results showed that participants reading off an iPad took longer to fall asleep, having “reduced evening sleepiness, reduced melatonin secretion, later timing of their circadian clock and reduced next-morning alertness than when reading a printed book.” Even when they did get the recommended 8 hours of sleep, the iPad readers still woke up groggier and less rested than when they read using a physical book. So make sure any nighttime reading is done with a paper book, and doing so under your Night Nook will prevent you from bothering your sleeping partner!
7) They help children become better readers
Reading to young children is a crucial part of their development, and doing so with physical books has been proven to be much more effective than with a digital reader. This is due to the fact that you and your child are more likely to get distracted by the electronic device through interactive elements, links, etc., interrupting the flow of the story.
This can be extremely detrimental to a young child’s cognitive progression, as the goal of reading to them at that age should be to have discussions around the story. “What we’re really after in reading to our children is behavior that sparks a conversation,” said Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a professor of psychology at Temple and co-author of the 2013 study. “But if that book has things that disrupt the conversation, like a game plopped right in the middle of the story, then it’s not offering you the same advantages as an old-fashioned book.”
8) Lastly (and most importantly), physical books just amplify the joy of reading!
At the end of the day, we're reading because of the enjoyment it brings us. There’s nothing quite like getting lost in a good book, and paper books make that much more likely to happen. Sure there is a bit of personal preference, but overall it seems that most people share our sentiment, regardless of their culture or geographic location. One study of college kids across the U.S., Slovakia, Japan, and Germany showed that 92% of participants preferred physical books to a digital alternative, again proving that the youth continue to enjoy print books.
If it wasn’t clear by now, we’ve definitely got a bit of a preference for physical books, but this article is not to say that digital books don’t have their own benefits. Being able to take a whole library with you on the go can be great for vacations (though there’s nothing like a paperback on the beach), and the ability to quickly scroll through text is ideal if you’re looking to skim a blog or magazine.
At the end of the day, there’s just no alternative for the joy that reading an good old fashioned paper book brings us! From its physical attributes (touch, smell, feel and beauty), to the cognitive and health benefits it provides, cracking open a physical book is truly something special. The fact that the paper book industry has remained so dominant despite newer and “better” technologies out there is just not something you often see… here’s to hoping physical books are here to stay!