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Books Are Dead. Long Live Books!

Three-quarters of Seattle readers prefer paper books to ebooks. We didn’t kill print after all.

By Allison Williams February 23, 2017 Published in the March 2017 issue of Seattle Met

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Image: Craig Sunter

First, everybody panicked. Books were dead. There would be no more intimate bookstores for meeting a soulmate in the poetry section, no more home libraries in which to pointedly display Margaret Atwood up top and Clive Cussler somewhere at the bottom. No more pages for pressing prom corsages. 

This wasn’t the panic of the mid-’90s, when big bad Barnes and Noble and Borders seemed poised to murder indie bookstores. Or the panic of the late ’90s, when Amazon undercut those book behemoths with a website (ah, memories!).

This was 2010, when ebook sales had gone up 1,260 percent in two years. Paper lost. Digital won.

Panic is the natural state of the book industry—or, rather, the state of the public’s view of the book industry. When it comes to the future of the written word, we’re usually about as calm as a flailing Kermit the Frog.

Listen to Peter Aaron, owner of the Elliott Bay Book Company, seller of old fashioned lumps of pulp: “I don’t think anyone has said that ebooks would replace print books since that initial flush.” He’s not surprised that 71.6 percent of Seattleites prefer the kind of book you can use as a makeshift doorstop, booster seat, or flyswatter. 

How do you read books?

Yes, we gave the world the Kindle, birthed in the quiet days of 2007 as an elite $400 machine. But even as it has evolved to serve the many—buy it today and Amazon will let you pay in $16, no-interest monthly payments, like a mattress—we’ve stayed away. It seems our loyalties lie with literary tradition, not local tech.

Even better, young people aren’t the tech minimalists we picture them to be; last year in an American University study, 92 percent of college students reported that they prefer print to digital reading. Here in Seattle, we found that 75.8 percent of those under 35 like their books on dead trees, compared to 69 percent of those 35 and over. (Stop trying to be hip, old people.) “More people are looking for an opportunity to have a satisfying, in-the-world experience,” Aaron says, before noting that kids seem really into book clubs. Everything old is new again.

So while Seattle may have introduced the world to Kindles and Surfaces and cloud storage, Seattleites are still dog-earing pages. Don’t mourn the paper tome. Or heed the words inscribed on the cover of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a real printed book about a fictional printed guide that’s invaluable in the age of spaceships: DON’T PANIC.

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