Guest Post: What Lies Ahead for Physical Books and How Will We Read in the Future?

December 23, 2020

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As the world goes increasingly digital, technology is changing the way people perform conventional tasks. Reading is no exception. Physical books are holding their ground better than DVDs and CDs, but some in the publishing industry wonder if they will be able to maintain dominance.

From libraries and bookstores to the shelves in your home, physical books reign supreme. But, some people in the literary world fear their rule might be coming to an end. However, others believe physical books will always have a place at the table (and on your coffee table).

While it’s impossible to predict the future, you can better understand what lies ahead for physical books after examining how digital platforms such as e-readers affect the way people read. The first step is comparing how the two methods of consuming books keep readers engaged and immersed.

How Digitization Affects Reading

Switching from a physical book to an e-reader isn’t as simple as it might seem. Maryanne Wolf, director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University in Massachusetts, has studied electronic reading extensively, and her research reveals that reading via a screen can negatively impact the way the brain responds to texts. Choosing an e-reader over a physical book could impact your ability to comprehend important details such as plot and sequence of events.

To better understand how digitization affects reading, think about reading as a spectrum. Wolf’s research indicates that physical books fall on one end of the reading spectrum. Print reading is the most immersive. On the other end of the spectrum, you have online text which is recognized as the most distracting. In the middle of the spectrum, according to Wolf’s interview in The Guardian, is Kindle reading.

In short, Wolf’s research shows that e-readers aren’t your best option in terms of an immersive experience, but they’re also not your worst. However, advertising in eBooks could potentially divert further attention.

According to a Pew Research survey, half of American adults now own a tablet or e-reader. Many people like the convenience of e-readers and appreciate having quick access to everything they need. While the reading experience might be less immersive, many fans of e-readers like that their Kindle, Nook, or iPad takes up less space than a collection of physical books which helps to keep their home or office space looking neat and tidy.

When Border Books declared bankruptcy in 2011, some in the publishing industry predicted that eBooks would soon overtake physical books. It’s that same fear that motivated some publishers to put a cap on library eBook lending. But, while people prefer to read certain genres via e-reader such as crime, romantic novels, and thrillers, according to Nielsen Book International, physical books are still in demand.

What the Future Holds for Physical Books

Readers might prefer tearing through a thriller on their Kindle, but books that are meant to be looked at such as coffee table collections continue to do well in print. Nature, cooking, and children’s books are a few of the genres helping to make a case for the future of physical books. However, as new technology develops, this could change.

E-publishers are working on new ways to make digital reading more immersive. On Goodreads, authors and readers are interacting in unprecedented ways. Thanks to the platform’s capabilities, readers and authors can discuss any passage, sentence, or line. Other book apps such as Book Catalogue allow you to track each and every book in your digital collection.

Despite these advancements, surveys indicate that the rise in popularity of e-readers has somewhat plateaued. But, as screen reading improves and expands, people might be persuaded to put down their physical books in exchange for digital reading. One area that could see a significant rise in digital reading and a decrease in physical books could be the classroom as part of a more interactive learning experience.

Why There Will Always Be a Place for Physical Books

For now though, people still love to own physical books for myriad reasons ranging from a desire to escape the screen to the chance to decorate their homes and display what they’ve read. You might think older generations are the ones hanging on to physical books, but that’s not quite the case.

The spending habits of young people show that there will likely be a place for physical books for years to come. In the United Kingdom, Nielsen research revealed that 63% of physical book sales are to readers under the age of 44. Gen X, millennials and Gen Z recognize that reading isn’t about speeding through but rather the ability to fully experience a book.

Although it’s impossible to know what the future holds, it appears that younger generations are giving physical books a fighting chance. Compact e-readers may be convenient, but research indicates that physical books continue to provide the best reading experience.

There’s no doubt that developers will work tirelessly to create a screen reading experience that can match physical books, but until they do, readers will continue to curl up with their beloved hardbacks and paperbacks.

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