Book to the future: Paper’s final chapter has yet to be written

Amid then fall-off in ebooks’ popularity, Mark Evans contacted bookshops to find out why sales of paper books are staging a welcome fightback from the brink of extinction

FORECASTS of the demise of the printed word are nothing new. Its most recent nemesis, the rise of Amazon and its vast library of ebooks, coupled with the screen addiction of the millennial generation, has threatened paper books with extinction within decades.

All the experts — from historians to technologists, anthropologists to novelists — voiced their assurance that we are witnessing the end of an age that began with Gutenberg’s Bible in the mid-fifteenth century.

Yes, they insisted, no longer shall we read from “tree flakes wrapped in cow skin”.

Marshall McLuhan, the philosopher who coined the phrase “the medium is the message”, heralded the end of the printed medium of books in 1966. He described outdated inventions, such as “clotheslines, seams in stockings, books, and jobs — all are obsolete”.

That was 17 years before the first commercially available handheld mobile phone, 25 years before the world wide web, and almost 40 years before the release of the Kindle.

So, yes, the demise of the printed book has been declared regularly over the past half century. There was an air of inevitability about it. The grave was dug, the mourners were dressed in black — all that was needed was one big publishing house to carry out the last rites.

But something curious happened in 2012.

That was the year printed books reached a tipping point. The explosion in the ebook market had pummelled paper books for the previous two years, in which the printed book’s status worsened from vulnerable to critically endangered. It was only a matter of time before it became extinct in the wild.

According to one blog: “The paper tome apparently hit rock bottom in 2012.”

It seemed everyone had a Kindle or at least the app on their phone or tablet. Reading for pleasure meant staring at a screen on a device no heavier than a magazine, which could hold more books than a mobile library. No one was hauling paper around with them anymore and only a dwindling number of aficionados kept inches-thick volumes of it on their bedside tables for nighttime reading.

Then the booming market for electronic books plateaued. More importantly, sales of printed books slowed their descent, levelled off, then — incredibly — began to rise again. 2012 bucked the book sales trend.

As with most economies it took a while for a pattern to emerge. Twelve months later, the upward trajectory was more pronounced proving that this was no statistical quirk or burst of nostalgia, or a sudden last gasp before printed books toppled into the abyss, where lay other formerly imperious technologies such as the cannon, the lantern, and the floppy disk.

IN OCTOBER 2014, The Economist published — online — an essay on the future of the book titled ‘From Papyrus to Pixels’. It pointed out that ebook sales stalled at around 30% of the US market, the biggest in the world, and levelled out at just 5% in Germany, the third-biggest.

“Even the most gloomy predictors of the book’s demise have softened their forecasts,” the Economist declared.

“Nicholas Carr, whose book The Shadows predicted in 2011 that the internet would leave its ever-more-eager users dumb and distracted, admits people have hung onto their books unexpectedly, because they crave immersive experiences.

“Books may face more competition for audiences’ time, rather as the radio had to rethink what it could do best when films and television came along; the habit of reading for pleasure has fallen slightly in the past few years.

“But it has not dropped off steeply, as many predicted. The length and ambition of a bestseller such as Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch — 864 pages in paperback — shows that people still tackle big books.”

The following year, the US technology news website GeekWire published an article called ‘Paper is back: Why ‘real’ books are on the rebound’.

In it, Frank Catalano wrote: “All hail paper, the book reading technology resurgent. Eight years after the first Amazon Kindle and five years since the first Apple iPad, lowly pressed wood pulp is on the rebound. The consequence looks more like co-existence than conquest. For now. The latest numbers for 2014 book sales tell a surprising tale. Nielsen BookScan, which tracks what readers are buying, found the number of paper books sold went up 2.4% last year, including at Amazon and all types of bookstores.”

The boom for books continued into this year. By the start of the summer media commentators were wading in with theories explaining the paper renaissance — with ideas such as bookshops only stocking “physical books by new authors that the publisher is really hyping and perennial bestsellers by recognizable authors” while “too many ebooks [are] being self- published by indie authors”.

These ideas may hold water, but they only explain the general fiction titles and celebrity memoirs. Sales were up in all genres.

Irish readers, too, followed the international trend by buying up more books in paper format.

Ruth Hegarty, president of Publishing Ireland, has seen preliminary print sales figures for 2016 and they are on target to be up 12% on the previous year. She says there is definitely a growing optimism among booksellers, but one tinged with a hint of trepidation.

“Bookstores across Ireland are reporting improving sales all the time. We carried out a survey last year and all respondents reported a positive outlook,” says Ms Hegarty.

“Print sales are growing, albeit from a lower base. Booksellers certainly feel more positive, but I would also say cautious.

“The numbers show that sales of ebooks have tailed off. People simply like buying real books. And publishers are offering exciting things such as great covers and quality paper.

“When Waterstones was owned by HMV they had a pile-’em high policy to books. Then they brought in someone who knew about books and the staff began recommending titles to customers, increasing sales. So we know that the yellow-pack system doesn’t work. You have to add value.”

She offers her own theory on why readers are turning their backs on ebooks.

“People are stuck on screens all day, with so many potential distractions. It’s hard to be concentrating on one thing. You see it in its simplest form while reading to children — printed books offer something real to feel and touch.”

Could it be that the recent surge in great fiction by Irish authors is also helping the paper book’s return from the brink of extinction?

“The end of the book has been heralded before,” agrees Ms Hegarty. “It seems like the recession created a lot of literary talent and now we’re seeing a lot of book sales.”

When it comes to checking up on the health of our book market, who better to give a diagnosis than the ones who meet the customers face to face — the bookshop owners and managers.

They describe the festive season as “harvest” time for bookshops, “essential” to their survival. It’s the season when their regular customer base is boosted by those seeking Christmas gifts and the shop owners know that printed books retain a premium that makes them special. Only a bibliophile can know or understand the delicious expectation of unwrapping a book. Can any other present hold as much power, regardless of its price? Bookshop owners understand this.

We chose to contact independent bookshops from across Cork City and county. There’s one from the east and one from the west of the county; there’s one from the city that’s 100 years old, and another that only opened in 2014.

If you look for patterns you’ll find them: Older bookstores tend to generalise, while the newer ones are the places where you can also enjoy a cup of coffee while thumbing through a novel. And cake, too.

The younger generation of paper book sellers understand the paucity of time in our lives. Barring a sojourn to the pub, the two chief diversions from the speed of life readily available to us are a cuppa and a book. It seems all bookshops in the near future will inevitably cater for both.

THERE was a time in Irish cities when bookshops and cinemas were dotted around the streets. Cultural evolution whittled down the number of cinemas. The same thing happened to bookshops. Musty stores in alleyways used to be filled with tottering towers of yellowed paperbacks with cracked spines and pre-loved pages, Aladdin’s caves for browsers and havens for the economically challenged. Alas, today, the second-hand shops are few and far between. What’s left are clean, well-lit, and orderly bookshops, brimming with new tomes with fresh faces, beaming from the shelves.

All bookshops, at least the ones we spoke to, are run by people who do what they do because they love books — reading them and helping others to discover them.

They all have their quirks; they are all enjoying a boost in sales; and they all are adamant that the future of the printed book — at least for the next decade — is secure.

Meanwhile, the ebook has settled into its niche and won’t be threatening to overthrow paper books anytime soon. As one bookshop manager brilliantly put it: “I see the physical book versus the ebook like comparing stairs and escalators, different ways to do the same thing.”

Unless there’s a medium comparable to an elevator waiting in the wings, we can safely say the final chapter in the paper book’s 500-year story has yet to be written.

‘Reading is a kind of lost art’

Rhia Gonzalez, manager of Alchemy Coffee and Books, Barrack St, Cork. ‘A book is only special when it’s on paper. It’s important to the younger generation that they experience the paper book.’ Pictures: Larry Cummins

RHIA GONZALEZ

Manager of Alchemy Coffee and Books, Barrack St, Cork City

“My friends said I was crazy to leave a perfectly normal job as manager of the Woodford bar in the city to run a coffee and book shop on Barrack St. They said it would be closed in a month. But it’s my dream job. It’s like my baby. We’re open two years this month.

“This place has a kind of bohemian feel to it. It’s been very well received. I feel people can see that we’re passionate about we do.

“I think reading is a kind of lost art, fallen by the wayside. We haven’t really been enjoying it. Here, people can come in, have a coffee and a read. One complements the other.

“The books we have are second-hand. People are constantly swapping books in here. We sell paperbacks for €2 and hardbacks for €5. The whole place offers readers an old-world feel, timeless, someplace to escape the madness, sit down and discover a book.

“I’m looking around the place right now and there’s four people reading books, one is on a laptop, and everyone else is chatting. It’s such a nice place to read.

“I always say it’s modelled on Black Books, the TV show with Dylan Moran. But in a friendly way!

“I don’t believe in ebooks. Yes, they’re fine to carry around in your pocket, but a book is only special when it’s on paper. Okay, you have to have consideration for trees and all that.

“It’s important to the younger generation with all their iPads and tablets that they experience the paper book. They can get that here, when they probably wouldn’t think about it outside.

“It’s important too that bookshops survive. Cork has always been a merchant city and there’s the huge bookshops such as Eason’s and Waterstones, so it’s essential that small independent bookshops balance that.

“Customers comment that it’s lovely to be surrounded by books. I’m a bookworm, though it’s hard to find the time to read.

“I come in here on my days off so I can get some reading done over a coffee. It’s like Stockholm syndrome!”

‘Physical book versus the ebook is like comparing stairs and escalators’

William Geoghegan outside Liam Ruiséal bookshop on Oliver Plunkett St, Cork, as the store celebrated its 100th anniversary. ‘With events and social media we’ve had great feedback. There’s definitely been an upturn.’ Picture: Larry Cummins

WILLIAM GEOGHEGAN

Manager at Liam Ruiséal’s, Oliver Plunkett St, Cork City

“I’m working here for 25 years. I came in for just two weeks after doing accounting in RTC [Cork Regional Technical College, now CIT]. I always had an interest in American fiction and bought every Stephen King novel when they came out, though I eventually branched out.

“Things have been going fantastically well for us. We’re celebrating our 100th anniversary and with events and social media we’ve had great feedback. There’s definitely been an upturn.

“We have to rely on Christmas trade. I would say it’s worth about 70% of the year for us, though the Christmas trade covers November and December. It’s our harvest, as such.

“Other big book stores, such as Eason and Waterstones are just monsters so we compete against them especially for general fiction. But Liam Ruiséal’s has always focused on history, local history specifically.

“Customers are coming back to us all the time. We’d send them emails telling them about new titles or ones they’re looking for. Plus, all year round you get browsers.

“As long as people write books there will be bookshops selling them. I see the physical book versus the ebook like comparing stairs and escalators, different ways to do the same thing. The future is looking good. For instance, I’m already buying books for February, which is frightening.

“Just like music, there are two types of book — good books and bad books, regardless of genre.

“We get a lot of book collectors and buyers from Britain coming in here and buying maybe five titles or asking us to source signed copies. We get the experts as well as the novices.

“One person came in recently looking for How to Kill a Mockingbird.”

‘People find that Mr Amazon doesn’t chat about books’

Katarina Runske with staff Sarah McKnight and Joan Tynan and her golden labrador JJ at Anna B’s bookshop on Main St, Schull, Co Cork. Pictures: Eddie O’Hare

KATARINA RUNSKE

Owner of Anna B’s, Main St, Schull, Co Cork

“Basically, this place opened about 12 years ago as Chapter One, and then by Sheila Whyte to become Whyte’s bookshop. Anna B’s opened in September 2015.

“I’m surprised by how busy we’ve been, really. So many people are finding that Mr Amazon doesn’t chat about books or discuss why people love certain books or what they should read next. I truly believe that the paper book won’t disappear because so many want the physical book, to put on a shelf and find us when we need it. Books remind us of what we were going through when we read them.

“We have storytime for kids at 11am on Thursdays, usually with four prams parked downstairs. Summer is super busy here with tourists popping in. We’ve had Bob Jackson [Cork author of A Doctor’s Sword] signing here, and Jeremy Massey [Dublin author of The Last Four Days of Paddy Buckley], and the RTÉ guys from Nationwide in last week. One young author, Elizabeth Murray, who was shortlisted on the Bord Gáis awards [for The Book of Shadows] lives here in the town. She stayed at Grove House [the guesthouse Katarina used to run] and one night I kicked her out because she was working so much and that night she met her husband.

“Irish authors are doing very well. Some of them will pop in here during the summer to sign some books and have a cup of coffee. We offer our customers coffee and cake and chat and books. In the summer people read more, especially when it rains. I read a lot because it’s important that I know about books and also know what customers want or would like. Just like when I ran a restaurant I would know what wine to recommend.

“Summer is always phenomenally busy. Christmas offers a cash injection but we don’t depend on it. Even last mid-term was very busy. I find the seasons stretching into each other — summer lasted until October.

“We have the tourist trade here that other bookshops in cities wouldn’t get. They come in looking for books on Irish history or geography.

“Our bestselling genres are general fiction, followed by children’s books, and then current affairs. Our bestsellers for Christmas will be — and are already — Graham Norton’s Holding and Paul O’Connell’s The Battle.

“We have a broad range of customers: A lot of children come in, teenagers, middle-aged women part of book clubs, elderly men looking for current affairs books.

“I grew up in Stockholm, but I’ve been here for the past 28 years. When people ask what brought me to Ireland I tell them I had an aunt in Ballydehob. It sounds like a Maeve Binchy story! I knew from the age of 14 that I wanted to write. It’s always been my ambition. I have an unpublished novel upstairs, locked away, written on an actual typewriter. When you’re surrounded by books you know how good the writing needs to be. I have two boys, aged 25 and 28. I was a single mum teaching piano to 35 students in Kilbrittain. One day I decided to pull the strings together and I bought Grove House. But then I wanted to work a little less and opened a bookshop.

“One of my favourite writers is Mary Wesley who started writing aged 72 and was phenomenally popular. She had an understanding of human nature, it’s like she kept it all bottled up until she was 72 and then it all came flooding out.

“Inside Anna B’s you’ll find a world-famous character — JJ, my gorgeous golden labrador. People love him, children lie on him when they come in for the storytime. And during summer I got four or five phone calls from people in Germany and Sweden who were going through their photos and wanted to know the name of the dog.”

‘I didn’t expect the decline in book sales to reverse’

Vibes and Scribes owner Joan Lucey. ‘I talk to so many people who tell me they’ve never read an ebook.’

JOAN LUCEY

Owner of Vibes and Scribes, Lavitt’s Quay & Bridge St, Cork City

“We opened 23 years ago and always believed that people should be able to browse. That ethos was there then and it’s still there now. You have to remember that we started off with musical books in our shop on Bridge St. It became a place for people to meet with their friends after coming into the city. So they browsed for a while.

“There’s been huge changes for bookshops, especially ones that offer bargain books like ourselves. There’s more competition and we’ve had to change the method of selling. Lots of bookshops have gone but those left are stronger because they’ve adapted.

“Our ethos remains the same. What we’ve changed is we’ve diversified, not dealing in just books alone but also art and crafts supplies. We focus on giving quality and value, for instance offering specially priced books at a fiver or three for €12. Our books are never trashy, but top quality books, quirky books.

“Big sellers for us are children’s books; mind, body, spirit books; and classics. In everything, price is king.

“If you asked me about the future of the book two years ago then I would have given you a different answer. Today, there’s been a boost in book sales that I thought I’d never see. I didn’t expect the decline in book sales to reverse. There’s an optimism among customers; they’re confident in their spending.

“The paper book is in a good place. There are so many things looking for people’s attention in their lives, people don’t have much time for themselves. But reading in bed offers them some downtime. People are doing that, not on an iPad, but with a real book. They want something realistic. It’s a soothing companion. I talk to so many people who tell me they’ve never read an ebook. And there’s enough bookshops around to show that sales are doing well. I may have a different answer in 10 years’ time, or even 5 years, but right now it looks like the future of the paper book is secure.

“Christmas is essential for us. We will sell more in the final few weeks than we would do in the previous few months. It’s a fact that we do rely on the Christmas bounce and wouldn’t be in business without it.

“I’ve seen a lot of grandparents coming in buying books for their grandchildren. They see them on iPads, et cetera, so much that they want them to enjoy a real book.

“Because of the year that’s gone, music books on David Bowie and Leonard Cohen and those people we’ve lost recently are hugely popular.”

‘Publishers know importance of the feel of books’ _large.jpg[/timgcap]

JESS MCCARTHY

Midleton Books, Main St, Midleton, Co Cork

“Myself and [my husband] Ronan opened this place 15 years ago. We were busier during the boom and it dipped a little after that but people are reading like mad again.

“We do story time for children at 10.30am on Thursdays, that’s aimed at the pre-preschoolers, two-year-olds.

“We’ve had great events. Author Sarah Baume came in and we were reading her novel [Spill Simmer Falter Wither] as a book club. Darren Shan [Zom-B series] from Limerick was brilliant for his signing. The place was packed. Liz Nugent [Unravelling Oliver] popped in unannounced, which was nice.

“The big thing this year is all about YouTubers. I don’t really get it myself. We had to put in a new section. The kids are mad for it. Also, adult colouring books are huge.

“But crime always sells lots — massive as always. The new Lee Child book, Night School, which features his popular Jack Reacher character is doing well. And of course, sports books — Donal Lenihan, Paul O’Connell, Rob Heffernan.

“I don’t think the paper book is threatened by the ebook. People are on computers all day now, looking at screens, so they don’t want to look at another one to read a book.

“Fine, they’re easier to take on holidays maybe, but readers want real books. Our customers feel very strongly about this, some of them told me that they were given Kindles as presents and they hate them.

“Publishers know the importance of the feel of books, putting more into the artwork on the covers, or you see some dust jackets with a velvet finish to make the book more tactile.

“We need to have a good Christmas. Thankfully we have fabulous regulars and we look forward to seeing our once-a-year customers who come in ahead of Christmas.”


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