This post is prompted by an unbelievably backward-thinking op-ed column published in today’s New York Times under the headline “Long Live Paper,” by a Tufts University professor, Justin Hollander. He in turn is responding to Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s assertion last week that paper textbooks should soon be made obsolete in favor of digital books.
In his op-ed, Hollander goes on to dump all over digital books, arguing that paper is better. In other words, this old-school professor thinks that we should continue to give our kids information in a form that (a) most of them don’t like, (b) makes their school backpacks weigh 40 pounds, (c) costs a lot in production, shipping, storage and environmental damage, and (d) is a a medium of information that will be as precious and vintage as vinyl records by the time these students are adults.
Secretary Duncan is right: paper books will go the way of horses and film cameras. Print books won’t go away. But they will no longer be ubiquitous or essential. They will become premium versions of what was formally known as a book — something nice you might give your employees for Christmas. A personal library will become more of a keepsake, a decoration, a way to preserve and pass down a physical version of an intellectual life. But increasingly you’ll find no one pulls a book off the shelf and actually reads it.
Book lovers among us — heck, authors among us! — hate the idea of dying paper books. But that won’t make the trend go away. Each succeeding generation moves farther and farther away from paper media. The harsh truth is, if you want to publish something for old people, put it on paper. If you want to publish something for young people, put it in the cloud so they can see it on anything, anywhere.
In 2007, I interviewed Kodak CEO Antonio Perez in front of an audience at Dartmouth. He talked about his first tour of Kodak facilities after he took the job. He’d go to film factories, and gather a couple thousand workers, and ask them how many of them use digital cameras. Inevitably, just about every hand would go up. Perez didn’t even have to say more. The film makers showed themselves why their world had to change.
That moment is around the corner for paper books. I’ve written five books and am on my sixth. I don’t read books on paper anymore. I just finished Ron Chernow’s 904-page biography of George Washington by reading some of it on a Kindle, and much of it on my smart phone on the New York subway. The book was always in the cloud, synched to whatever page I last read. I found time to read it in spaces where I never would’ve carted the massive print volume.
This is good news for publishing and authors, because now I can buy and read more books. And it’s looking like that’s true for much of the book-reading audience — once they get into digital books, they buy more books than before.
A lot of CEOs come to us wanting to write a book. And that’s great. A long-form book makes a statement. It can be a deeply argued body of thought or a grand sweeping story — something you can’t do so well on YouTube or Pinterest. Despite all the technology out there, the written word remains the most efficient means for channeling what’s inside one person’s brain directly into another person’s brain.
But keep in mind that the book is changing. If you want to create a paper book, publish beautiful printed copies that can be treasured artifacts and reach an audience — still sizable, by the way — that can’t or prefers not to read a book on a device.
And know that you’ll reach a younger, more tech-savvy generation a different way — through digital copies in the cloud. Like it or not, kids entering grade school today will get to college and think of a physical book as an antique.