| Feb 14, 2023

Page-Turners: Why Printed Books Endure in the Digital Age

Parchment scrolls, wax tablets, and decorated manuscripts have all been consigned to history. But the feared death of the traditional book has been much exaggerated.
By Jenn Elwood |

4 minutes

Have you ever tried to flip to the very back of an e-book to see how many pages you have left? Next to impossible. Maybe you have tried to smell your e-book to no avail. Perhaps you’ve even tried to highlight a passage, only to find that there are altogether too many buttons and taps involved. On the upside, at least you can tap a word to get a quick definition, and a device with 20 books on it weighs a lot less than a stack of hardcovers. 

There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with an e-book, but if readers are overwhelmingly sticking to the traditional book despite the conveniences of electronic reading, there must be more to its survival than basic content consumption. It’s possible that a traditional book provides something more fulfilling. Despite the increasing encroachment of the digital into our daily lives, bookstores are still alive and well. Even libraries, those places most people haven’t visited since they were 10, are thriving. Evidently, books are doing something right. 

Readers Gravitate Toward Print

Stora Enso surveyed 2,400 readers and found that 65% preferred a bound paper book to an e-book. Another survey by Pew Research Center showed that 32% of Americans self-report only reading print books, and another 33% read both paper and digital books. A mere 9% limit themselves to e-books. On top of that, printed books currently sell four times more than e-books. 

Pew Research also reported that 37% of people exclusively favor print, indicating a very slow adoption of alternative ways to read. At this rate, print books won’t be completely obsolete for at least another century (plenty of time for the book industry to sort out its next marketing move to forestall such a travesty). 

Personally, having read 91 traditional books and one e-book in 2022, I am still drawn to the printed book. It isn’t just me, though. There are many other reasons that people love books:

  • Research suggests that information retention is higher for printed nonfiction books. A meta analysis of 33 studies found that print readers also better understood the text they were reading. Even if all this weren’t true, there might be a perception among readers that because the printed word is more tangible, it is more memorable. 
  • Although we’ve all been warned about the damaging effects of reading in dim light, the hazards of reading from a screen are just as bad. Electronic readers are at risk of developing vision strain, “characterized by fatigue, pain around the eyes, blurred vision or headache,” according to one French study. These symptoms can be averted with print reading by turning on a lamp, making the printed book a little more user-friendly.
  • Some people work well surrounded by stacks of books. It’s easier to find a particular passage because of the spatial memory involved with a physical book. Many readers also enjoy having a home library both for its form and function.  
  • Printed books come with a reading experience. They are the object of love letters, something that eludes the e-book (although I did find one such dispatch to the Kindle, which I’ve linked for fairness). 
  • Low prices appeal to any customer, and books remain about the same price as their alternatives, and sometimes they can be cheaper.    


Content Isn’t Everything

Despite the technological advances available to readers, the printed book appears to create more of a reading experience that readers crave. Text, on its own, is perhaps not as compelling as that same text bound in a thematic cover, vanillin molecules wafting up from its paper pages. Despite the convenience of alternative ways of reading, many readers find that books evoke more feeling for a similar price.

For many, it’s more than just an aesthetic choice between the likes of sitting in front of the fireplace with a giant blanket and a book that rests heavily in your hands, or a cold tablet that bores blue light into the back of your brain (unless you’re using a Kindle, though you will have to turn the page twice as often). When your friends come over, do you ever hope they notice that you must have been reading something interesting because of the books in your living room? 

There is emotional and social currency wrapped up in a book’s binding, and for a lot of people, more functionality. Books serve decorative and educational purposes, and they don’t depend on chargers or internet connectivity, providing a perhaps welcome reprieve from the considerations of a digital age. 

Print Books a Testament to Longevity

This longevity is tough to imitate, but there’s plenty to learn from books’ success. Leaders must, in many ways, follow trends (and often must try to stay ahead of them) to be successful. However, staying power requires consistency. From a product or service perspective, consumers often want a particular experience and only judicious change (see the uproar every time Microsoft releases a new version of Office). 

It’s tempting to always jump on the latest bandwagon. To stay current, it may even be necessary. However, if something is effective, it makes sense to avoid change for change’s sake. Change is a different book for reading on the couch, not a different platform for reading — and the longevity of books is deeply connected to their timelessness.

Jenn Elwood
Jenn Elwood

Opinion Contributor, Strixus

Jenn Elwood is a contributor for Strixus, focusing on topics that bridge the gap between management and employees (with the occasional psychobabble thrown in). view profile


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