For years, the end of the printed book has been prophesied. For just as long, print products have stood up to e-books. New figures show that there is no end in sight to this coexistence.
In the past, it wasn’t just industry insiders and experts who conjured up the triumph of the e-book – I don’t want to exclude myself from that. Stanislaw Lem, for example, was one of the first authors to envision a future without printed books back in 1961. The Polish philosopher and science fiction pioneer is still known today for his sometimes astonishingly accurate visions of the future. In his novel “Transfer” (originally “The Return from the Stars”), the protagonist encounters a future that today’s e-book fanatics could also design:
“I spent the afternoon in a bookstore. There was not a single book there. The store resembled an electronic laboratory. The books were crystals with recorded content. You could read them with the help of an “opton” that resembled a book but had only a single page between the covers. When touched, the other pages of the text appeared on it one after the other.”
Much has undoubtedly happened in the printing and book market since 1961. But the real future is different from Lem’s projections: Printed books continue to be significantly more popular than e-books, as reported by the online portal Heise, among others. Germany in particular is living up to its reputation of placing special value on the printed manifestation of knowledge: While only 10 percent of respondents bought an e-book last year, according to a survey, 58 percent bought a paper book.
However, Germany is not an exotic country stuck in the past in these statistics, but reflects the global trend. Even in countries where sales are almost on a par, slightly higher sales figures were achieved with printed books, for example in China: Here, 32 percent of respondents bought a printed book and as many as 24 percent an electronic one.
Regardless of the continent, printed books remain popular. In all ten countries surveyed, e-book sales are falling behind those of printed books. The somewhat balanced figures for China are already followed by the USA with the most e-book purchases in the group of respondents (22.7 percent) – although twice as many bought a printed book here. India (5.6 percent) and France (7.5 percent) sold the fewest e-books in relative terms, although sales of printed books are also limping in India in particular: Only a quarter of respondents here bought a paper book.
Of course, e-books have clear advantages over print books in some areas, starting with easier transport: anyone who once helped move a well-read friend with a printed library will probably remember it with a sore back. With a simple tap, the desired content is loaded onto the e-book without distortion, and the memory also offers enough space for varied reading. And let’s face it, it’s nice to be able to take an entire library with you on vacation on an e-book instead of overloading your luggage.
In many areas, however, print is ahead. The sensory perception when turning the pages of a book, the feel of a high-quality printed cover, the smell of printed books that is appreciated by many: an e-book will not be able to provide all this in the future either. However, there is no clear winner in every area: a well-stocked library and a modern e-book with all the bells and whistles are both suitable as status symbols. When it comes to decorative elements, there are proponents of both book walls and digital minimalism.
Not even in science fiction is there only one truth: Stanislaw Lem makes his protagonist think back wistfully to the printed books that had died out in fiction: “How I had looked forward to books! But it was no longer possible to browse the shelves, to weigh the volumes in my hand, to feel their weight and the promise of ponderous reading.”
PS: I’m writing these lines in my library, surrounded by all the books I love – and next to me is my e-book reader.