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The decline of print may give reading a boost

| 25 Apr 2012

"Personally, I can't wait for the digital publishing revolution to take hold..." :: Shutterstock

The debate about the long-term decline of print at the hands of digital publishing can sometimes take on all the nastier aspects of two religious bigots hurling abuse at each other, with one side cursing print as an anachronism to be cast into the pit, and the other damning digital as a de-civilising force. “Print must die!” screams one. “Digital is the devil’s work!” shrieks another.

We publishers are occasionally guilty of forgetting what publishing is all about. It’s not about the physical format, it’s about the content – the words. A book is a book, whether it’s digital or printed, and what is important is that the book gets bought and read. If people stopped reading for pleasure and to stay informed, that would indeed be a cultural catastrophe. But there is no sign of that happening; in fact, rather the reverse.

A report from the Pew Research Center in America has examined the effect that tablets and e-readers have had on the reading habits of American consumers. Encouragingly for all of us working in publishing, the report finds that the arrival of these digital devices has led many people to read more than they used to when all that was on offer was print.

According to the survey, 30% of those who regularly read either e-books or digital magazines say they are now reading more than they did before acquiring their tablet or e-reader (7% said they read less, and 62% said they read about the same as before). People who regularly read e-books are particularly enthusiastic, with 42% saying they are reading more since e-books became available. And it appears that the longer someone has owned their e-reading device, the more they are likely to increase their consumption of books; 30% of those who had owned their tablet or e-reader for less than six months said their reading had increased, but that figure rose to 45% for those who had owned their device for more than a year. On average, those who read e-books said they had read 24 books in the previous 12 months, compared with 15 books for those who had stuck with just print.

Why might this be? The research suggests that three key aspects of digital reading have wide appeal. Most important is the ability to get hold of a publication you want quickly; you can download an e-book much faster than you can get a printed version from a bookshop or newsstand, and this obviously encourages impulse purchases. The second key advantage is the ability to read wherever you are, even while travelling or commuting; 73% of those who read both e-books and printed books say they prefer an e-book over a printed book while on the move. And the third factor that encourages more reading is the huge choice of digital books available online, compared with the limited physical stock carried by the typical bookshop.

But these same people also say that when they want to read with their children, they far prefer to use a printed book; and 69% of them say they regard printed books as easier to share with other people than trying to share a digital book. The survey is split on reading in bed, with about half plumping for print and half preferring their digital reading device.

I find this all pretty reassuring; it suggests that people are sensibly using the advantages of digital publishing, while not abandoning print when it suits them. Of course, the arrival of digital publishing has been (and remains) highly disruptive of the entire industry; but if people are reading more, then surely that is the most important thing in the long run.

Mark Rosselli is chairman of CPL

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