Given the rise in digital book publishing and alternate sources of entertainment and information through multimedia, many people have speculated that printed books are headed for the trash heap. A decade or so ago, the trajectory of physical books showed signs of heading in that direction.
But a curious thing happened with the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020. Some have called it a resurgence of print book sales; some even daring to use the word “comeback.” Bibliophiles and librarians are almost ready to celebrate.
From 2010–2019 the average number of print books sold in the U.S. was about 662 million copies per year. But then in 2020—during the pandemic—751 million copies of print books were sold, an increase of 8.2 percent over the previous year. This was partly explained by the immediate necessity for educating children at home. And for many people, the pandemic lockdowns gave them more time to read as the pace of life slowed down.
But this was not just an aberrant pandemic occurrence—the next year in 2021, a record-setting 843 million copies of print books were sold, an increase of 12.3 percent over 2020! Keep in mind these increases were in the midst of supply chain issues, paper shortages, labor upheaval, and distribution challenges.
According to a Pew Research Study in January 2022, print books remain the most popular format for reading. Of the U.S. adults who reported reading a book in the past 12 months, 23 percent listened to an audiobook, 30 percent read an e-book, while 65 percent read a printed book. In study after study, people report a decided preference for reading a physical book over listening to an audiobook or reading an e-book.
Here are some of the reasons print books have sustainability and endurance.
- Increased Focus
Holding a book in your hands is a full-body experience. Not only is your brain reading the words and your imagination and cognitive abilities processing the concepts, but the tactile experience of holding the book open and feeling its weight and substance keeps you focused. There are no distractions of links, scrolling, or advertisements.
- Better Retention
Studies show that you absorb and retain what you read from a physical book—comprehension and retention rates are better. Have you ever gone back to look for a phrase in a book, and you knew exactly where it was oriented on the page? That doesn’t happen when you scroll or click.
- Satisfying Physicality
When you read from a printed book, there is a distinct physicality to it. You can see your progress. There is space on the page to take notes or utilize a personalized bookmark. Physically turning the page marks incremental accomplishment. Well-placed books on a shelf with characteristic bookends enhance the aesthetics of a room. And some people just love the smell of a good book.
Reading from a physical book is better for your eyes than the blue light from a device. If you are hoping to get a good night’s sleep, reading printed material remains the best way to wind down. It provides a temporary digital detox for your mental health, and there are never any battery or Wi-Fi issues.
- Sheer Joy
There are no statistics or science to back this up, but readers continue to describe how a print book sparks pleasure. It takes them to their happy place. They read from a book simply because they want to. During the fears and uncertainties of our time, many people find joy, discovery, and reflection in the physical properties of a book.
The digital formats of audiobooks and e-books have their use and benefits, and will continue to function effectively, but the printed book is still very much alive. Today’s best book publishers are leveraging digital technologies to enhance their product marketing, much the same way marketers utilize both digital channels and direct mail.
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