Corrections or additions?

This article by Edward Tenner was prepared for the May 12, 2004

issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

So Many Books, So Few Readers

Ten years ago the printed word seemed a noble anachronism crushed

between televised entertainment and burgeoning electronic information

resources, from CD-ROMs and audio books to online hypertext.

Today, many would-be replacements of books have vanished, while

conventional print marches on. The Association of American Publishers

recently reported a 36 percent increase in book sales since 1997 – a

modest performance by the standards of DVDs and videogames, but


What went right? Paradoxically, it was the rise of computing that

propelled the book’s enhanced role as prestigiously presented

information, and the Web and other digital technology that helped spur

book authorship. But this in turn has given publishing and authorship

a new set of problems.

The dire predictions of the ’90s were hardly new. In 1895, even before

the commercial success of Thomas Edison’s phonograph, a pair of French

satirists only half-jokingly published a chapter on "The End of the

Book" that predicted its replacement by audio media. The authors even

included a drawing of a climber on a mountaintop with a proto-Walkman.

A hundred years later, the crisis seemed real. In reference

publishing, CD-ROMs threatened to replace bulky printed volumes.

Microsoft’s Encarta encyclopedia, which cost $395 when introduced in

1993 but dropped to $79.95 within five years, transformed a

nondescript supermarket set into a new kind of reference work,

enlivened with video and sound clips as well as searchable text ready

for cutting and pasting into homework.

For little more than the price of the $1,500 Encyclopedia Britannica,

families could now own a PC plus an encyclopedia. Sales of the

venerable Britannica in the United States and Canada dropped from

117,000 sets in 1990 to 51,000 in ’94; in ’96, the foundation that

owned the company sold it to a Swiss-based investment group that

introduced a succession of new formats and business plans, including

more affordable CD-ROMs and online subscriptions.

Some writers foresaw the doom of serious reading itself. In 1994 the

Boston-based critic Sven Birkerts published "The Gutenberg Elegies," a

passionate requiem for a literary culture that seemed to be vanishing

in the face of new technology and the indifference of television – and

computer-saturated young people.

For their part, the gurus whose influence Birkerts dreaded conceded

that readers would continue to prefer flipping through bound pages to

scrolling through electronic text on a screen. No problem, they said.

Flexible and rewritable high-contrast electronic paper would keep the

printed book’s time-tested ergonomics while adding search capabilities

and other features of digital media.

In 1996 Nicholas Negroponte, director of MIT’s Media Lab, informed

readers of Wired that this miracle material might be ready "during the

next couple of years." The prophets’ vision of ubiquitous,

electronically delivered information did not actually call for the

suppression of literary classics; in fact, it has made some of those

in the public domain more widely available, but in chopping writing

into searchable bits and bytes the computer seemed to be discarding

the book’s soul with its body.

What a change a decade has brought. One of the surprise critical hits

of 2003 was "So Many Books" by the Mexican critic Gabriel Zaid. As

devoted a book lover as Birkerts, Zaid celebrates rather than mourns.

Fifty years after the introduction of television, he writes, the

number of titles published worldwide each year has increased fourfold

from 250,000 to 1 million – from 100 books for every million humans to

167. A book is published somewhere in the world every 30 seconds.

Where Birkerts and other pessimists detected a shift from the book,

Zaid sees the true problem in the hopeless disproportion between the

flood of books and the time and physical space of readers already

overwhelmed by the larger information deluge. The speed of

publication, Zaid writes, makes us "exponentially more ignorant. If a

person reads a book a day, he would be neglecting to read 4,000

others, published the same day."

What accounts for the shift in mood between these two landmark books

about reading? As it turns out, both the optimistic technological

prophets and the pessimistic critics of the 1990s overlooked a series

of underlying paradoxes about books.

First, books have multiplied partly because they have become less and

less important as information storage technologies. As our dependence

on them has shrunk, their number and variety has increased, and their

status has been if anything enhanced by the attention that the Web has

showered on them through online bookselling and discussion groups.

As late as the early 19th century, books were used for many activities

for which they were not especially efficient. Major libraries printed

their catalogs, and others used handwritten bound volumes. Accounting

was literally book-keeping. Bankers had little gilt-edged and

leather-bound lists of bond values at different interest rates, and

credit reports were extracted from handwritten, bound manuscripts.

But over time, information was cut thinner for easier access and more

frequent revision to handle a new flood of products and transactions.

Card catalogs replaced printed library catalogs, and were extended as

the first true databases. Slide rules reduced reliance on tables.

Loose-leaf accounting systems and bookkeeping machines changed the

form of business records.

"How Much Information 2003," a recent report of the School of

Information Management and Systems of the University of California,

Berkeley, shows just how unimportant books and other paper documents

have become for information storage. New information has been growing

at 30 percent a year, consistent with the techno-evangelists’

predictions. In 2002, five exabytes – 500,000 times the capacity of

the Library of Congress – of new information was produced worldwide.

Ninety-two percent of it was on hard drives and other magnetic media.

Only 0.01 percent of information in all media is stored on paper, and

books by one estimate account for less than 2.5 percent of all paper.

Nevertheless, the number of books sold worldwide grew over 45 percent

between 1999 and 2001. In the United States new book pages grew by 83

percent during the same period. In short, while there are many more

books than there used to be, less and less of our factual data are

stored in them.

Second, books have flourished because, despite massive increases in

computing power, electronic media often were less efficient than they

appeared. The CD-ROM seemed the medium of the future by the early

1990s. But beyond reference publishing and specialized offerings, the

CD-ROM let the publishing industry down. Without standardized user

interfaces or convenient authoring tools, they were time-consuming

both to produce and to use and not readily browsed in retail stores.

(When did you last see one in a bookstore, except for those embedded

in thick technical tomes?).

It is true that electronic books – those made available as computer

files displayed either on portable devices or computer screens – have

sunnier prospects than CD-ROMs. Major software manufacturers and

publishing companies support standard formats. Sales of electronic

books rose 27 percent in 2003, and titles in print rose 43 percent to

7,168, according to a report by a group of leading companies cited in

Publishers Weekly. But the total revenue is still a modest $7.3


And dedicated reading hardware has so far been disappointing.

Electronic paper? Philips Research Laboratories of the Netherlands

recently announced a breakthrough, but no commercial release date has

been set.

But the real limits to E-books are legal and economic rather than

technical. As Stephen King discovered midway through the marketing of

his serialized downloadable novel "Riding the Bullet" in 2000, they

are easily pirated. Clearing copyright in images, a daunting enough

challenge for printed books, can stifle new media. (For example, the

online edition of the Grove Dictionary of Art, the standard reference

in its field, has no image of the Sistine Chapel, the Eiffel Tower, or

any work of Pablo Picasso.) As copyright terms have been lengthened

and control over visual images concentrated in a few large sources,

many experts believe the public domain itself is endangered.

Meanwhile, the transfer of electronic content to new hardware and

operating systems remains a vexing challenge for publishers and

librarians. That may be why the massive online database WorldCat lists

over 3,200 libraries holding printed versions of Bill Gates’s "The

Road Ahead" (1996), while only 71 have electronic copies. Meanwhile,

Britannica has reported rebounding interest in its printed version,

available again since 2001 after a hiatus in the late 1990s.

Third, and most surprisingly, books survive because technology has

made it much easier to write and publish them. Beginning in the 1980s,

even the simplest word-processing programs enabled part-time writers

to compose and especially to revise without fretting over white-out

fluid, scissors, and rubber cement. And publishers started to accept

authors’ word processing disks, ultimately reducing composition costs

despite initial glitches.

More and more people came to believe they could publish and flourish.

According to a recent survey, 81 percent of Americans would like to

write a book. Some of them are aspiring authors of serious fiction and

nonfiction, who have never had an easy road and who now exist in

greater numbers than ever, thanks in part to the proliferation of

academic writing programs.

When "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" can sell 1.1 million

copies in a weekend, it’s hard to tell anybody to stop dreaming,

whatever the odds (or to give up on the video-addicted young). And of

course many people without literary gifts – from Bill Gates to every

would-be Tom Peters – use books to promote their image and ambitions.

The publishing industry has responded to the opportunities opened by

new technology. Desktop publishing has slashed composition costs,

encouraging thousands of new small publishers to enter the marketplace

since the 1980s even as the bigger houses have endured a wave of

consolidation. There are now 70,000 publishers in America, up from

21,000 in 1986.

And on-demand printing, which uses advanced photocopying and binding

equipment to produce a single book or a very small run economically,

allows large and small presses to keep specialized titles in print. It

also has blurred the line between vanity and legitimate publishing.

With backing from Random House, the on-demand publisher Xlibris (which

started at an incubator in Trenton and moved to Philadelphia) adds

prospective authors’ works to its list for a fee as little as $500,

printing copies as requested. In 2003 the company’s president told

Publishers Weekly that he expected on-demand printing to increase the

annual volume of U.S. books published from 100,000 to 200,000 in the

near future.

Were the doomsayers needlessly gloomy? Not entirely. There does seem

to be less zest for reading among today’s college students than there

was in the 1960s and early ’70s. In the American meritocracy, general

culture ranks far behind job-related learning. In Europe and the

United States, demand has not kept up with the expansion of new pages,

leading to sagging unit sales – a sad fact that probably reflects

market cycles, not impending extinction. Recent studies suggest that

Web browsing and video games take users’ time mainly from television

rather than from book reading.

To put lamentations in perspective, even in the golden age of print

culture from the 1880s to the 1930s, literary men and women were

appalled by most Americans’ indifference to book buying and by what

they saw as the masses’ preference for trashy and sensational reading

over good literature. Book clubs, fine editions, and sets of classics

were all launched in order to uplift public tastes. In the late 1950s

and ’60s the explosion of new paperback titles, accelerated by

swelling public university enrollments, seemed to promise high culture

for all.

Why this hope has been largely unfulfilled is a complex story, but the

issue is a cultural rather than a technological one. As professional

life has become more competitive, more reading is required for

continuing education. At a publishers meeting in the 1980s I heard the

learned editor of a great literary magazine acknowledge being so

exhausted from a long day of reading and editing that he switched on

the television once back at home.

Despite the Internet-powered boom in book collecting, the leisured

magnate in his library of rare books is a nearly extinct species. And

the obligation of patronage has lagged behind the dream of creation:

Poetry Magazine, with only 11,000 subscribers, receives 90,000

submissions a year. And how many aspiring novelists support serious


Coping with the problems of the new book market will take creative

thinking from publishers, librarians, authors, and readers. But it’s

clear by now that the book needs not last rites but fresh air and


Edward Tenner ( is a senior research associate


the Lemelson Center for the History of Invention and Innovation at the

National Museum of American History.

In 1996 he wrote "Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of

Unintended Consequences." This essay was first published in the Boston

Globe on April 25.

Previous StoryNext Story

Corrections or additions?

This page is published by

— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.