Books have been one of the most important human creations used for transferring knowledge, information, telling stories, and innumerous other functions. Dating back to as early as 2700BC in the form of stories on clay tablets, we have had this technology for a long time and it has been evolving alongside us ever since.
Books have taken many forms over the course of their history, including but not limited to clay tablets, papyrus scrolls, wax tablets, modern paperback, and our topic of discussion today – e-books and what they mean for print.
The reason we do not typically see ancient scriptures and parchments outside of museums anymore is because they evolved into modern print, our current norm. However, with the rise of digital reading, will we eventually be saying good-bye to printed books too?
The development of e-books began in the early 1900s. In 1971, Project Gutenberg, started by Michael Hart from the University of Illinois, marked an important milestone for e-books by creating a massive and growing library of free books available for reading online.
The technology has been constantly expanding since then with new apps/software like Glassbook and devices like Amazon Kindle being introduced to draw attention to the wonders of electronic reading.
It is important to note, however, that during this time, print books were and still are the norm as has been the case for centuries. It was only within the last decade or so that people began speculating that e-books would supplant print books and, for a while, that seemed to be the case.
There are multiple good reasons for this assumption. E-books are much easier to access than print. All we need is an app/device that supports them and an internet connection. We can change font sizes and screen brightness to make reading easier.
They are much less hassle to carry around and maintain than physical print and are also generally cheaper to purchase than first-hand copies. E-books also include audio books, allowing the visually impaired to enjoy written content. When we order e-books, there is no wait for shipping and delivery – they are instantly available on our devices. All these are benefits for the customers.
Businesses and even our environments can see tangible benefits from e-books being adopted as the new norm. To name a few, publishers can save on the costs of print and distribution. By selling digital copies, there is no worry on printing too many or too few copies for a given sales period since there is no limited stock.
The reduction of physical print also means we will be using less paper and consumers will be spending less on fuel by shopping online instead of brick and mortar. Note that we will not immediately see significant improvements switching from print to digital, but these are just a few that we can look forward to if it were to happen (and it might).
Speculations aside, how do people feel about this topic today? Some may be worried at the thought of a print-less future while others may be excited at the thought of never having to lug around heavy bags of books to and from places. But what is the current state of things around the world and what does it mean for Bangladeshi readers?
According to the August 2019 statistics report of the Association of American Publishers, print is still the dominant trade format in the United States, making up $528.6 million or 79.9 percent of the $661.2 million in that month's revenue. E-book revenue came in at $86.3 million – a 7.3 percent decrease from August 2018.
The September 2019 report reflected much of the same trend with print making up 75.2 percent of trade for the month and e-book revenue decreasing by a further 1.3 percent compared to September 2018.
In the United Kingdom, The Publishers Association's 2018 Publishing Yearbook reported a five percent increase in e-book sales to $862.39 million and a five percent decrease in print book sales to $3.83 billion for the year.
This followed the two percent decrease in e-book sales during 2017, reflecting a bounce back for digital sales.
According to a 2017 Booknet Canada survey, 18.6 percent (up from 16.9 percent in 2016) of book purchases during that year were e-books, and 94 percent (up from 91 percent in 2016) of publishers surveyed were also producing e-books.
In Australia, there appears to be very little involvement with e-books as very few publishing reports include the format in statistical analyses. This is not to say e-books are not being used in Australia – just that statistical reporting is lacking, indicating that it may not be too popular.
Now these statistics may offer a mixed bag of information, but they are by no means a consensus. The larger statistical reports are based on surveys which include many well-known publishers, but does not necessarily consider all self-published titles or those without an ISBN.
With that in consideration, Amazon is one of the largest sellers of e-books with a large portion of their catalogue consisting of the above exceptions to the larger statistical reports. Thus, any inferences drawn from that data should be taken with a grain of salt.
In any case, the above sales values do provide some interesting insights regarding where we are going with regards to the future of books and what it could mean for Bangladeshi readers. While e-books appear to be losing popularity in the US, they are fluctuating with an upward trend in the UK, slowly gaining popularity in Canada, and seem to have no significant market in Australia.
The variation in e-book popularity likely means the world is still apprehensive about giving up print. Since many English books in Bangladesh are imported, the popularity and availability of print in places like North America and Europe could have an impact on availability of foreign print in Bangladesh.
A common factor across the surveys is that print still holds the dominant position while the digital format appears to be settling into a niche, meaning we should not see too much of a change in foreign print availability. At the moment, it may not be unreasonable to say that the e-books are still in a very early stage of their development and implementation into mankind's march of progress and as such, print is the preferred format despite the better accessibility and economic advantages for going digital.
Print books still have their own advantages. They are material and can provide sensory experiences (touch, smell… etc) that an e-book cannot. Consumers also own the product after purchasing it (buying an e-book is merely buying the right to access it on our devices). Physical books also make for great gifts.
With the current Covid-19 pandemic, one may expect a rise in e-book popularity due to brick and mortar shopping being unsafe, but according to reports, Bangladeshi readers appear to be ordering more print books than e-books through online retailers. Even in the face of a pandemic, print still seems to be the preferred medium. It would be safe to say that print books likely will not be replaced altogether any time soon. This applies to Bangladeshi readers as much as any other reader around the globe.
While access to certain print books may be limited in Bangladesh due to availability and import restrictions, e-books make for a great supplement as they are readily available online. If anything, the current trends suggest e-books are beginning to settle into their own niche and print books will remain dominant for the foreseeable future, but who is to say we will not see a modern classic sitting in a museum exhibit a few centuries from now?
Aaraf Dayad Azam is a freelance writer