RIP books: is the written word dying?

If you read the news, scour forums, or listen to podcasts, you might have encountered sensationalist headlines suggesting that the written word is dead. Or if it’s not quite dead yet—it’s certainly dying. But who certified its death? And is it a case of misdiagnosis? Is the written word really dying? Will books disappear from our bookshelves? Let’s investigate… 

What is the written word? 

Perhaps the most important thing to clarify is what “the written word” actually refers to. Commonly, people assume that it means books and books only. But the written word is just that, words that are written. This means that it includes physical and e-books, magazines, newspapers, internet articles, websites, and even Q&A resources such as Quora. That said, when people talk about the death of the written word, a little delving reveals that they’re often talking about books specifically. So let’s talk about my favourite topic—books. 

Why do people think books are dying? 

This perception is partly due to the unarguable surge in popularity of other media formats such as audiobooks, podcasts, YouTube, and Netflix. If more people are listening to podcasts, that must mean that less people are reading books, right? Not so fast—a rise in popularity of one format doesn’t necessarily mean the death of another. A surge in Michelin starred restaurants doesn’t mean that McDonalds is going out of business any time soon. What it suggests is that people like to consume things in multiple ways or different ways to each other.

But are books dying off? 

To state that books are dying, there needs to be evidence that less people are buying them and less people are reading them. Indeed, the analysis of book trends over a few years was primarily what led many articles to proclaim the death of books. For example, a 2015 article stated that books are dying because there had been less sales than the previous year. Less book sales than last year? Books must be dying out! 

Unfortunately, these articles rely on data trends that cover a relatively short period of time (a year or a few years), yet draw long-term conclusions. While a downturn in sales might herald death, a few years’ data doesn’t necessarily indicate finality. For example, a decline in physical book sales and an increase in e-book sales over several years (2008-2011) led many people to announce the death of physical books. However, in 2015, the trend stopped and e-book sales stagnated. 

The trouble is—we don’t have reading statistics from bygone generations to compare against today. So we can’t say for certain whether people now are reading more or less than those in the Victorian era, or the 50s, or even the 80s. In fact, when we look at data over a longer time period, things become more balanced. In a follow-up to the 2015 study, the 2016 study pointed out that reading levels were largely unchanged since 2012.  

Where does the data come from? 

One of the major articles that led people to believe books were dying was “Twilight of the Books”, a 2007 article in The New Yorker. It was based on a survey of Americans’ time-spending habits beginning in 2003. However, in 2018, the writer revisited his article, stating “I’ve often wondered whether I was right about the underlying trend.” He pointed out that the data was not only short term but inconclusive, as it classed “browsing the internet” as “web surfing” rather than reading, failing to take into account the different forms of the written word. 

What’s more, many of the articles about readership levels are based on American reading statistics, so it would be misleading to draw global conclusions from them. In fact, a 2013 UK study found that people under 30 were reading more books than they were 10 years before, and in more formats.  

What does this tell us? 

With only short-term, unclear, and conflicting data available, how can we tell whether books are dying? Let’s look at the size of the industries. The book industry drew in $77 billion dollars in 2017 (of which $4 billion came from physical books and £770 million from e-books). In 2018, the magazine industry bought in $65 billion over 28,000 businesses in America alone, while newspapers accounted for $25 billion.  

Ultimately, the data isn’t clear, conclusive, or long-term enough to put the nail in the coffin. Even if there has been a slight decline in readership over a few years, the industry is still huge and lucrative for both independent authors and publishers. All of this suggests that the written word isn’t losing its appeal any time soon.