The most popular page-turners no longer have pages. The most popular bookstores no longer only sell printed books.
Yet even as electronic books and e-readers have grown in popularity, University librarians and local bookstore owners are confident that the lure of the physical book will keep it from becoming obsolete.
Ever since e-readers such as the Apple iPad and the Amazon Kindle arrived on the book market three years ago, digital e-book sales have steadily increased. In July 2010, Amazon reported that it had begun selling more e-books than hardcovers. And in January 2011, USA Today reported that the top six best-selling books of the holiday season sold more electronic copies than print.
As online booksellers have continued to win over customers, Ann Arbor bookstores have struggled to compete. In 2009, Shaman Drum Bookshop closed its doors after operating for nearly 30 years as an independent bookstore, and the Ann Arbor-based Borders bookselling chain will be shutting down all its nationwide locations within the next few weeks.
But despite these warnings to booksellers, local bookshop owners have not been intimidated. Jay Platt, the owner of West Side Book Shop in downtown Ann Arbor, says he is not worried about losing his business, nor is he worried about the fate of the printed book.
“Books have survived for quite a while, and there’s a reason why they have,” Platt said. “With (a book) it’s a tactile relationship. It’s something you can hold.”
Platt says there are so many differences between a printed book and an e-book that he doesn’t consider them to be the same thing.
“It’s a different product,” Platt said. “It’s an entirely different experience.”
Bill Gillmore, owner of Ann Arbor’s Dawn Treader Books, agrees that e-books and printed books are too different to compare. For one thing, Gillmore says, when a person buys a physical book, the book belongs to him or her, but when a person buys an electronic book, there is a great difference.
“When you buy a book on an e-reader, you don’t own it,” Gillmore said. “All that’s yours is the electronic device and not its contents.”
This is the reason why Gillmore believes that printed books will never become obsolete. When people buy books, Gillmore says, they’re looking for more than just the ink and paper.
“Physical books aren’t just books,” Gillmore said. “There’s a certain icon aspect to them, and that’s what people are after.”
Gillmore admits that he has lost business to online booksellers because of their convenience, but as a seller of printed books, he believes he still has at least one advantage over online stores.
“The one real advantage that a shop like mine has over an online shop is browsing,” Gillmore said. “It’s very difficult to browse online, and I would bet that at least half of all the books I sell are books that people didn’t even know that they wanted.”
The ability to browse is an advantage that local bookshops share with another sanctuary for the printed book: the library. Libraries allow visitors to search for certain books within a catalog and scan the shelves for related titles. From there, visitors can physically grab the books, hold them and mark them up, which is a feature that University library specialist Kathleen Folger says e-readers will need to have if they are to replace printed books.
“E-readers will need to make it easier to move quickly through pages and to highlight and markup text,” Folger said.
Yet even if e-books become more interactive and easier to navigate, Folger neither fears for the future of the printed book nor the future of libraries.
“I don’t think print books will ever be completely obsolete,” Folger said. “But they will be far rarer in the future than they are now.”
Folger adds that libraries becoming obsolete isn’t a concern to her because of their wider purpose beyond what’s in print.
“Librarians help people navigate complex information,” Folger said. “We did that in the days of print and we do it even more now in the electronic environment.”
The electronic environment has undoubtedly changed the way books are shared, but longtime booksellers like Platt have learned to adjust to consumer trends. And even amid all the changes, there is at least one thing about books that Platt believes will always remain the same.
“People will always treasure having a printed book,” Platt said. “And if you want to keep one, you’re going to want to keep it in book form.”