Corrections or additions?
This article by Edward Tenner was prepared for the May 12, 2004
issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
So Many Books, So Few Readers
Ten years ago the printed word seemed a noble anachronism crushed
between televised entertainment and burgeoning electronic information
resources, from CD-ROMs and audio books to online hypertext.
Today, many would-be replacements of books have vanished, while
conventional print marches on. The Association of American Publishers
recently reported a 36 percent increase in book sales since 1997 – a
modest performance by the standards of DVDs and videogames, but
What went right? Paradoxically, it was the rise of computing that
propelled the book’s enhanced role as prestigiously presented
information, and the Web and other digital technology that helped spur
book authorship. But this in turn has given publishing and authorship
a new set of problems.
The dire predictions of the ’90s were hardly new. In 1895, even before
the commercial success of Thomas Edison’s phonograph, a pair of French
satirists only half-jokingly published a chapter on "The End of the
Book" that predicted its replacement by audio media. The authors even
included a drawing of a climber on a mountaintop with a proto-Walkman.
A hundred years later, the crisis seemed real. In reference
publishing, CD-ROMs threatened to replace bulky printed volumes.
Microsoft’s Encarta encyclopedia, which cost $395 when introduced in
1993 but dropped to $79.95 within five years, transformed a
nondescript supermarket set into a new kind of reference work,
enlivened with video and sound clips as well as searchable text ready
for cutting and pasting into homework.
For little more than the price of the $1,500 Encyclopedia Britannica,
families could now own a PC plus an encyclopedia. Sales of the
venerable Britannica in the United States and Canada dropped from
117,000 sets in 1990 to 51,000 in ’94; in ’96, the foundation that
owned the company sold it to a Swiss-based investment group that
introduced a succession of new formats and business plans, including
more affordable CD-ROMs and online subscriptions.
Some writers foresaw the doom of serious reading itself. In 1994 the
Boston-based critic Sven Birkerts published "The Gutenberg Elegies," a
passionate requiem for a literary culture that seemed to be vanishing
in the face of new technology and the indifference of television – and
computer-saturated young people.
For their part, the gurus whose influence Birkerts dreaded conceded
that readers would continue to prefer flipping through bound pages to
scrolling through electronic text on a screen. No problem, they said.
Flexible and rewritable high-contrast electronic paper would keep the
printed book’s time-tested ergonomics while adding search capabilities
and other features of digital media.
In 1996 Nicholas Negroponte, director of MIT’s Media Lab, informed
readers of Wired that this miracle material might be ready "during the
next couple of years." The prophets’ vision of ubiquitous,
electronically delivered information did not actually call for the
suppression of literary classics; in fact, it has made some of those
in the public domain more widely available, but in chopping writing
into searchable bits and bytes the computer seemed to be discarding
the book’s soul with its body.
What a change a decade has brought. One of the surprise critical hits
of 2003 was "So Many Books" by the Mexican critic Gabriel Zaid. As
devoted a book lover as Birkerts, Zaid celebrates rather than mourns.
Fifty years after the introduction of television, he writes, the
number of titles published worldwide each year has increased fourfold
from 250,000 to 1 million – from 100 books for every million humans to
167. A book is published somewhere in the world every 30 seconds.
Where Birkerts and other pessimists detected a shift from the book,
Zaid sees the true problem in the hopeless disproportion between the
flood of books and the time and physical space of readers already
overwhelmed by the larger information deluge. The speed of
publication, Zaid writes, makes us "exponentially more ignorant. If a
person reads a book a day, he would be neglecting to read 4,000
others, published the same day."
What accounts for the shift in mood between these two landmark books
about reading? As it turns out, both the optimistic technological
prophets and the pessimistic critics of the 1990s overlooked a series
of underlying paradoxes about books.
First, books have multiplied partly because they have become less and
less important as information storage technologies. As our dependence
on them has shrunk, their number and variety has increased, and their
status has been if anything enhanced by the attention that the Web has
showered on them through online bookselling and discussion groups.
As late as the early 19th century, books were used for many activities
for which they were not especially efficient. Major libraries printed
their catalogs, and others used handwritten bound volumes. Accounting
was literally book-keeping. Bankers had little gilt-edged and
leather-bound lists of bond values at different interest rates, and
credit reports were extracted from handwritten, bound manuscripts.
But over time, information was cut thinner for easier access and more
frequent revision to handle a new flood of products and transactions.
Card catalogs replaced printed library catalogs, and were extended as
the first true databases. Slide rules reduced reliance on tables.
Loose-leaf accounting systems and bookkeeping machines changed the
form of business records.
"How Much Information 2003," a recent report of the School of
Information Management and Systems of the University of California,
Berkeley, shows just how unimportant books and other paper documents
have become for information storage. New information has been growing
at 30 percent a year, consistent with the techno-evangelists’
predictions. In 2002, five exabytes – 500,000 times the capacity of
the Library of Congress – of new information was produced worldwide.
Ninety-two percent of it was on hard drives and other magnetic media.
Only 0.01 percent of information in all media is stored on paper, and
books by one estimate account for less than 2.5 percent of all paper.
Nevertheless, the number of books sold worldwide grew over 45 percent
between 1999 and 2001. In the United States new book pages grew by 83
percent during the same period. In short, while there are many more
books than there used to be, less and less of our factual data are
stored in them.
Second, books have flourished because, despite massive increases in
computing power, electronic media often were less efficient than they
appeared. The CD-ROM seemed the medium of the future by the early
1990s. But beyond reference publishing and specialized offerings, the
CD-ROM let the publishing industry down. Without standardized user
interfaces or convenient authoring tools, they were time-consuming
both to produce and to use and not readily browsed in retail stores.
(When did you last see one in a bookstore, except for those embedded
in thick technical tomes?).
It is true that electronic books – those made available as computer
files displayed either on portable devices or computer screens – have
sunnier prospects than CD-ROMs. Major software manufacturers and
publishing companies support standard formats. Sales of electronic
books rose 27 percent in 2003, and titles in print rose 43 percent to
7,168, according to a report by a group of leading companies cited in
Publishers Weekly. But the total revenue is still a modest $7.3
And dedicated reading hardware has so far been disappointing.
Electronic paper? Philips Research Laboratories of the Netherlands
recently announced a breakthrough, but no commercial release date has
But the real limits to E-books are legal and economic rather than
technical. As Stephen King discovered midway through the marketing of
his serialized downloadable novel "Riding the Bullet" in 2000, they
are easily pirated. Clearing copyright in images, a daunting enough
challenge for printed books, can stifle new media. (For example, the
online edition of the Grove Dictionary of Art, the standard reference
in its field, has no image of the Sistine Chapel, the Eiffel Tower, or
any work of Pablo Picasso.) As copyright terms have been lengthened
and control over visual images concentrated in a few large sources,
many experts believe the public domain itself is endangered.
Meanwhile, the transfer of electronic content to new hardware and
operating systems remains a vexing challenge for publishers and
librarians. That may be why the massive online database WorldCat lists
over 3,200 libraries holding printed versions of Bill Gates’s "The
Road Ahead" (1996), while only 71 have electronic copies. Meanwhile,
Britannica has reported rebounding interest in its printed version,
available again since 2001 after a hiatus in the late 1990s.
Third, and most surprisingly, books survive because technology has
made it much easier to write and publish them. Beginning in the 1980s,
even the simplest word-processing programs enabled part-time writers
to compose and especially to revise without fretting over white-out
fluid, scissors, and rubber cement. And publishers started to accept
authors’ word processing disks, ultimately reducing composition costs
despite initial glitches.
More and more people came to believe they could publish and flourish.
According to a recent survey, 81 percent of Americans would like to
write a book. Some of them are aspiring authors of serious fiction and
nonfiction, who have never had an easy road and who now exist in
greater numbers than ever, thanks in part to the proliferation of
academic writing programs.
When "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" can sell 1.1 million
copies in a weekend, it’s hard to tell anybody to stop dreaming,
whatever the odds (or to give up on the video-addicted young). And of
course many people without literary gifts – from Bill Gates to every
would-be Tom Peters – use books to promote their image and ambitions.
The publishing industry has responded to the opportunities opened by
new technology. Desktop publishing has slashed composition costs,
encouraging thousands of new small publishers to enter the marketplace
since the 1980s even as the bigger houses have endured a wave of
consolidation. There are now 70,000 publishers in America, up from
21,000 in 1986.
And on-demand printing, which uses advanced photocopying and binding
equipment to produce a single book or a very small run economically,
allows large and small presses to keep specialized titles in print. It
also has blurred the line between vanity and legitimate publishing.
With backing from Random House, the on-demand publisher Xlibris (which
started at an incubator in Trenton and moved to Philadelphia) adds
prospective authors’ works to its list for a fee as little as $500,
printing copies as requested. In 2003 the company’s president told
Publishers Weekly that he expected on-demand printing to increase the
annual volume of U.S. books published from 100,000 to 200,000 in the
Were the doomsayers needlessly gloomy? Not entirely. There does seem
to be less zest for reading among today’s college students than there
was in the 1960s and early ’70s. In the American meritocracy, general
culture ranks far behind job-related learning. In Europe and the
United States, demand has not kept up with the expansion of new pages,
leading to sagging unit sales – a sad fact that probably reflects
market cycles, not impending extinction. Recent studies suggest that
Web browsing and video games take users’ time mainly from television
rather than from book reading.
To put lamentations in perspective, even in the golden age of print
culture from the 1880s to the 1930s, literary men and women were
appalled by most Americans’ indifference to book buying and by what
they saw as the masses’ preference for trashy and sensational reading
over good literature. Book clubs, fine editions, and sets of classics
were all launched in order to uplift public tastes. In the late 1950s
and ’60s the explosion of new paperback titles, accelerated by
swelling public university enrollments, seemed to promise high culture
Why this hope has been largely unfulfilled is a complex story, but the
issue is a cultural rather than a technological one. As professional
life has become more competitive, more reading is required for
continuing education. At a publishers meeting in the 1980s I heard the
learned editor of a great literary magazine acknowledge being so
exhausted from a long day of reading and editing that he switched on
the television once back at home.
Despite the Internet-powered boom in book collecting, the leisured
magnate in his library of rare books is a nearly extinct species. And
the obligation of patronage has lagged behind the dream of creation:
Poetry Magazine, with only 11,000 subscribers, receives 90,000
submissions a year. And how many aspiring novelists support serious
Coping with the problems of the new book market will take creative
thinking from publishers, librarians, authors, and readers. But it’s
clear by now that the book needs not last rites but fresh air and
Edward Tenner (www.edwardtenner.com) is a senior research associate
the Lemelson Center for the History of Invention and Innovation at the
National Museum of American History.
In 1996 he wrote "Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of
Unintended Consequences." This essay was first published in the Boston
Globe on April 25.
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