The Chronicle Review

The Prestigious Inconvenience of Print

March 09, 2007

"Power to the People" was a 1960s slogan embraced by the electronic visionaries of the 1970s, who heralded a new era of universal communication and access to knowledge. Thirty years after the birth of the personal computer and more than a decade after Netscape launched the World Wide Web as we know it, their goals seem within reach, if not already achieved.

We, the people, have been empowered. We can send what are basically free telegrams to people around the globe, create and distribute photographs and video at little or no cost, broadcast our ruminations through blogs, and browse many of the world's greatest art museums and library collections — all from our own desks. Public libraries and Internet cafes around the world assure free or cheap access to those still without home computers. If that isn't progress, if this isn't empowerment, what is?

Yet there is a catch. In 1976, the same year that Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs released the Apple I, which started bringing computing into the home and the classroom, the economist Fred Hirsch published Social Limits to Growth (Harvard University Press). Grossly oversimplified, Hirsch's argument was that even as societies become wealthier, many consumer goals remain unmet.

For example, the supply of what is considered prime real estate is restricted; only so many people can own an apartment facing New York's Central Park or on Chicago's lakeshore without plunging entire landscapes into the shadows of their buildings. The prices of many rare books have increased more than a hundredfold in the economic expansion since World War II, and a few major paintings are starting to break the nine-digit mark. The growth of an educated work force, combined with frequent mergers and acquisitions, means that there are more talented people than ever shut out of top management — which receives an ever-higher multiple of average wages and salaries. Even some use of public roads may go to the highest bidders now that governments are beginning to levy significant congestion charges for driving during peak times. As the number of vehicles increases, it isn't clear how high per-mile tolls will go to keep traffic moving.

Whenever more people with more money pursue objects, spaces, services, and media imprints that are limited in supply (as opposed to those that can be multiplied and reduced in price through technological innovation), progress may look like a frustration machine. Surveys taken in the 30 years since the Apple I and Hirsch's book suggest that happiness has not grown with increased wealth or electronic access.

Unknown creators may dream of being discovered on the Web, but celebrities get prime placement in conventional news media. Even for a manifesto forecasting the end of printed books, one of cyberspace's founding gurus, Kevin Kelly, used not a blog but all the positional might of The New York Times Magazine (May 14, 2006) — with a striking cover image by Abelardo Morell, an award-winning photographer and specialist in bibliophile photography. And although the Times posted dissenting as well as supporting comments in its online "Forum," it was without such trappings of position.

As a former acquisition editor at a publishing house, I can testify that impatient critics of the printed book are getting it wrong. Conventional print publishing is a daunting business. No matter what an organization's size, it faces challenges unknown to wikians and bloggers. A printed book, as one production editor pointed out to me, is really a machine with a half-million parts, any one of which can go wrong.

While purely electronic publishing has the same challenges with texts themselves, print introduces new realms for errors and disputes in paper, printing, and binding. Conscientious editors of major illustrated books have been known to camp out at the printer, sometimes continents away, to see final proofs and avoid potentially ruinous last-minute surprises. Predicting sales is an occult art, with its dual risks of unmet surges in demand and huge write-offs and remainders. U.S. tax treatment of warehoused unsold copies is notoriously unsympathetic.

Yet such bugs are also positive features. If a well-known publishing house takes the risk on a book, even a despised so-called midlist title, readers are at least subliminally aware that an investment of tens of thousands of dollars is at stake, that the author's writing is worth a gamble. While some industry pundits have proclaimed print-on-demand to be the future of publishing, there will always be a positional advantage to the conventional book. It says somebody thought enough of this writing to run off a whole batch. What's more, there are many design features that on-demand printing can't equal.

Because progress has made communication so efficient, the prestige of inconvenience extends to personal life, too. That's why electronic greeting cards, while still readily available, have never replaced those in the drugstore racks. "Paper is for lovers," The New York Times declared recently. "Despite the e-volution of correspondence, paper Valentine's Day cards are still in style." The recipient appreciates not only the physical card suitable for display and graphic frills like metallic foil, but also the fact that somebody has gone to the effort of buying, inscribing, addressing, stamping, and posting it.

And although executives may spend hours sending e-mail communications and instant messages, their most important sentiments are likely to be expressed as handwritten notes — one of the reasons for the luxury fountain-pen industry's niche in the digital age. Legislators and their staffs are also said to take handwritten letters more seriously than e-mail notes, although it remains true that an original and thoughtful electronic message will be more influential than canned talking points in any format.

Despite all the predictions of the end of printed books dating from the rise of the PC and the Macintosh in the early 1980s, census figures show that the number of authors more than doubled in that decade. Surely the efficiency of word processing had a lot to do with that burst. And even after declining from an all-time high of 190,078 titles in 2004, the preliminary 2005 total of new titles reported by the R.R. Bowker Bookwire service was nearly 150,000 (cloth and paperbound combined) — a significant increase over the 113,589 titles published in 1995, just before Netscape's release popularized the Internet.

Yet newspaper readership has been declining significantly: Daily newspaper circulation is down an average of almost 3 percent over the last six months, in the wake of a decade-long slide. Meanwhile, although the statistics for the United States are hard to find, it does not appear that paid opportunities for Web-based writing have offset losses in print publications. A recent Canadian survey of freelance writers reported a decline of average pretax income from about $26,500 in 1995 to $24,035 in 2005 — not adjusted for inflation.

As a researcher, I'm delighted that there's so much free, or usually advertising-supported, content. But as a writer, I'm concerned that outlets are declining as aspirations are rising. Writing programs seem to specialize in the one genre, the short story, that has suffered most from the decline of general-interest magazines. Few bloggers have made a living from their writing, and many of them seem to have begun with experience or connections in print publishing.

The Web is simultaneously helping to undermine some of the most socially valuable parts of conventional media. By eroding the advertising base of print newspapers and magazines, the Web is not threatening their existence, but it is indirectly depleting marginally profitable yet vital services.

For example, even as the number of published books has soared, newspaper book-review sections have dwindled. And at a recent panel of Nieman Fellows at Harvard University, Kevin Cullen, a reporter and Pulitzer Prize winner at The Boston Globe, warned of the future of the investigative reporting that has exposed so many government abuses in recent decades: "The only place we see it is in the print media, and I don't know if we'll see it five or 10 years down the road," he observed, "and that scares the hell out of me." Television networks, too, have been closing their foreign bureaus.

In sum, just as luxury watches remain in demand while most people carry cellphones that give the time with virtually observatory-standard accuracy, the Web will never destroy older media because their technical difficulties and risks help create glamour and interest. At the same time, however, the Web does nibble at their base, creating new challenges for writers, musicians, and other members of the media.

On a positive note, one recent study implies a surprising strategy for cultivating reading and book buying. Andrew Abbott, a professor of sociology at the University of Chicago and chairman of a task force that studied library usage by all parts of that university, reported in the October issue of the University of Chicago Magazine: "The more an individual uses books, the more he or she uses electronic-research resources, and vice versa. ... At the very least, the survey data provides no evidence that traditional research practices are being replaced by electronic ones. Thus, the replacement hypothesis — a standard idea in library literature — must be rejected."

The possibility follows that the more sophisticated students become as users of search engines and online databases, the more likely they will become readers, and perhaps buyers, of books. The knowledge-hungry person will need and appreciate print, just as many serious readers of traditional books in an older generation became the gurus of today's electronic scholarship. As Abbott observes, "there was no evidence that younger people were somehow 'more electronic.'"

By questioning either-or commonplaces about students and reading, the study suggests many promising directions for teaching. We have only begun to use print and digital resources to enhance and extend each other. College teachers in the humanities can now draw on decades of scholarship in the history of the book and of reading to help their students understand all of the features of print — formats, typography, jacket designs, binding — that form part of the cultural impact of books and periodicals even today.

For example, the dimensions and design of The New York Times Magazine, never present in databases like LexisNexis and Factiva or even the Times's own public Web archives, amplified Kevin Kelly's message. More and more rare-book departments in university libraries welcome not only faculty and graduate research but undergraduate use. The goal in the next decade or so should be to prepare students to be discerning users of, and contributors to, all media. An excellent starting point on the Web is the site of the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing (at

Despite the enduring positional advantage of print-plus-Web over Web-only, Internet authorship of all kinds will also continue to flourish as a counterbalance to conventional media. Yes, the Web might be promoting a pseudodemocracy harking back to the class society of Victorian England, when W.S. Gilbert's Grand Inquisitor lampooned ordinary Britons' dreams of glory in The Gondoliers: "When everybody's somebody, then no one's anybody."

But empowerment isn't entirely an illusion. To balance the cleric's dour judgment, we should recall the cheerier conclusion of the Dodo in Alice in Wonderland: "Everybody has won, and all must have prizes."

Edward Tenner is an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies at Princeton University and a visiting scholar in the department of the history and sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania. He is author of Our Own Devices: How Technology Remakes Humanity (Vintage, 2004) and Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences (Knopf, 1996). This essay was adapted from a speech given at the Couchiching Conference, an annual forum on public affairs in Ontario, Canada. Section: The Chronicle Review Volume 53, Issue 27, Page B7