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ECPA Wire: Industry Issues

Saving Print for the Next Generation

Wednesday, February 24, 2016  
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by Larry Weeden
Larry Weeden

Does Print Need Saving?

Ever since the advent of e-books, and especially of dedicated reading devices like the Kindle and Nook (plus iBooks for the iPhone and iPad), we’ve been told that bound books are bound to go the way of the dodo. The explosion of e-books that followed and the rapid growth of their share of the book market seemed to confirm the prediction.


Running parallel was the decline in overall book reading by the American public, as reported by Pew, Barna, and others. The future of the book itself, in any format, came into question. But for sure, whatever books would be read in coming years, they would soon be read only on a digital screen.


For those of us who love to hold a book, flip the pages, write in the margins, and even breathe in the new-book smell, this was bad news. Of course, publishers and printers had their doubts about this brave new book world as well.


So the question arose, can print be saved for the next generations? When we bound-book lovers are gone and the digital natives have taken over, will the printed page become extinct? Or can (and should) bound books somehow survive?


My first answer is that, since those early dire prophecies, we’ve now reached a point where maybe print doesn’t need to be saved.


The “Real” Book

In recent years, whenever I meet a young person who professes a love for books (high school and college students, twenty-somethings, etc.), I ask, “In what format do you like to read them?” And every time I’ve posed the question, the answer has come back, “I like to read a real book.” By which they mean a bound book.


In a similar vein, studies have been done asking college students whether they want their textbooks to be bound books or e-books. And the results are consistently the same: they want bound textbooks.


Likewise, in research done by Barna for the American Bible Society and reported in the Foster Report, 81 percent of teens who read the Bible said they do so in a print version, and 67 percent said they prefer to read their Bibles that way.


Much has already been written, too, about how e-book sales have leveled off since their meteoric early rise. They’re now 20-25% of total book sales but not going higher. E-books have certain advantages, such as greater convenience when you’re traveling, but maybe readers generally have come to feel like those young people I’ve queried.


And then there’s the growing realization, based on a number of recent studies, that reading a bound book is just a better experience in some significant ways. Reading e-books and bound books are two different things as far as the brain is concerned, with bound books promoting better concentration, comprehension, and retention of the material read. They’re also more satisfying to more senses, more easily searched, and more readily personalized through marginal notes, dog-earing, underlining, sticky notes, and so on.


Maximize Print’s Strengths

As more and more people become aware of these advantages offered by bound books, it can only help to promote their popularity. But to the extent the printed page needs saving, how can we bound-book lovers advance the cause?


In a recent blog, now-retired IVP editorial director Andy LePeau encouraged each of us to introduce a child to books. Get the little ones hooked early on turning those pages.


Another suggestion: Let’s be careful to make the interior design of our books more reader-friendly. Many books I see today seem to have as many words as possible crammed onto every page, perhaps to save money by limiting the length. The result is copy-dense and unappealing books that are a chore to read. As my PUBu colleague Torrey Sharp charged in his article, let's have a "heart for design."


Our authors can help greatly, too, by creating community with their readers through blogging, tweeting, Facebooking, and so on. My wife is a big fan of a popular novelist, in part because the author is in regular dialogue with her readers even as she’s working on her next book. She answers their questions, gives “behind the scenes” insights into her writing process, tells stories about her family, and generally makes her fans feel that she’s their friend who happens to write books. On request, she also autographs copies of even her old books, and you can’t autograph an e-book!


Not Either/Or But Both

Finally, let’s acknowledge that paper and screen have different strengths and use each accordingly. Neither is likely to go away. It’s not an either/or proposition, nor should it be. We may prefer one format over the other, but there are times when even we bound-book lovers want to reach for a digital reading device, and vice versa. I’m glad to live in a time when both are readily available.


Larry Weeden is the Director of Book Development, Curriculum, and Acquisitions for Focus on the Family, where he has served for more than 25 years. Larry has also been an active freelance writer and editor for more than 30 years and is involved in the industry's PUBu program.

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