January 22, 2019

The Tipping Point

According to an item that raced across the Internet after the holidays, we have reached a tipping point in the digital revolution — Amazon sold more e-books than “real” books on Christmas day. 

Well, not so fast. Electronic books still represent less than one percent of all books sold, and what happened on Christmas day needs to be put into perspective.  Amazon sold out its stock of Kindle e-book readers in early December, and lots of people who received one as a holiday gift tried out their new toy by ordering and downloading some e-books. By contrast, the people who still prefer “real” books were able to refrain from e-commerce on that day and spend time with one of the conventional books that they received as gifts.  Nothing more is needed to explain the spike in e-book sales on Christmas day.

Of course, it’s perfectly true that we are witnessing revolutionary changes in how books are written, published and sold.  The steady decline of independent booksellers is old news, and even the chains are suffering; Borders, the second-largest bookstore chain in America, is closing another 180 stores by the end of January 2010.  And it’s also true that e-book readers are the hot new thing in the publishing industry — Barnes & Noble has launched its own e-book reader, the Nook, which also sold out during the holidays, and early-adopters are eagerly awaiting the rumored launch of a new e-book reader by Apple.

Even more fundamental changes are on the horizon.  If the Google class-action settlement is ever approved and implemented, it will be possible to access and search the entire contents of the great libraries of the world, and many millions of titles will be available for on-line ordering, whether in print, print-on-demand or digital editions. Indeed, it is Google’s ambition to put every book ever written into its vast online database, a grandiose notion that may yet become a reality.

Still, the fact remains that printed and bound books — or “dead-tree” books, as digital visionaries like to call them — are still alive and well.  Although it may be a generational issue, many of us still prefer (or need) to read books in the form of print on paper rather than a digital display, if only because the workings of the human eye seem to favor the printed page.

My own prediction is that “real” books will outsell e-books for a long, long time.  To be sure, many of us will buy those books on-line rather than in a beloved neighborhood bookstore, and many of those books will be “POD” (print on demand) books — that is, a book that is stored on a computer and printed out only when a copy is actually purchased. 

But, now and for a long time to come, the end-product will not be greatly different from the print-on-paper book that began with Gutenberg and has defined human civilization for the last six centuries.

Jonathan Kirsch, book editor of The Jewish Journal and author of “The Grand Inquisitor’s Manual: A History of Terror in the Name of God,” will appear with Dr. Amir Hussain and Dr. Bob Harris in a program on “The Roots of Religious Terrorism” at Antelope Valley College (Room SSV 151) on at 7:00 p.m. on Tuesday, January 12, 2010.