How Real Books have Trumped Ebooks

Something fascinating has been happening to print book over the past few years.

“Books have always had a fetishistic quality to them, with their dusty secretiveness,” writes Alex Preston in The Guardian. “Now, though, it feels like we’re living through a special moment in the history of book design and beautiful books are everywhere.”

He cites several examples of stunning recent releases, including George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo and Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads, with its cover inspired by mosaic from the Imam mosque at Isfahan. Even the classics are getting makeovers, like the stunning Penguin Hardcover Classics reissue of the works of F Scott Fitzgerald, or its clothbound editions of Austen, Brontë and Dickens.

“It’s hard to know whether to read these books or caress them.”


Preston compares these new books to the stuff being put out a decade ago when ebook readers dealing a hard blow to the book industry.

“Publishers responded to the threat of digitization by making physical books that were as grey and forgettable as ebooks,” he notes. “It was an era of flimsy paperbacks and Photoshop covers, the publishers’ lack of confidence manifest in the shonkiness of the objects they were producing.”

Now, publishers are obviously coming to embrace the true value of the printed book experience, and are creating books that beg for us to pick them up and experience them as multi-sensory objects – the exact opposite, in fact, from ebooks.

And consumers are responding.

“Mary James, who runs Aldeburgh Books in Suffolk with her husband, John, says business is flourishing,” Preston continues. “She thinks we’ve now had long enough with both forms of literature to recognize that ‘the greyness and the blandness of Kindle’ can’t compete with a book you can touch and hold.

“People can’t remember what they’ve read on Kindle. Because everything looks the same,” James says. “They say, ‘I’m reading this book but I can’t remember what it’s called or who it’s by.’ With a printed book the physicality and color and texture lodge in your mind.”

We witnessed the peak of ebooks in 2014, and now, as print book sales climb while ebook sales drop, we are witnessing the return of the beautifully printed book. Millennials, in particular, seem to be enthralled with the idea of a “real” book. Rather than trying to compete with ebooks, publishers are again distinguishing their print offerings in ways that digital simply cannot.