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A decade ago, seers predicted that technology would bury the printed word. So why are there more books than ever?

TEN YEARS AGO the printed word seemed a noble anachronism crushed between televised entertainment and burgeoning electronic information resources, from CD-ROMs and audio books to online hypertext.

Today, many would-be replacements of books have vanished, while conventional print marches on. The Association of American Publishers recently reported a 36 percent increase in book sales since 1997 -- modest performance by the standards of DVDs and videogames, but bubble-proof. What went right? Paradoxically, it was the rise of computing that propelled the book's enhanced role as prestigiously presented information, and the Web and other digital technology that helped spur book authorship. But this in turn has given publishing and authorship a new set of problems.

The dire predictions of the `90s were hardly new. In 1895, even before the commercial success of Thomas Edison's phonograph, a pair of French satirists only half-jokingly published a chapter on "The End of the Book" that predicted its replacement by audio media. The authors even included a drawing of a climber on a mountaintop with a proto-Walkman.

A hundred years later, the crisis seemed real. In reference publishing, CD-ROMs threatened to replace bulky printed volumes. Microsoft's Encarta encyclopedia, which cost $395 when introduced in 1993 but dropped to $79.95 within five years, transformed a nondescript supermarket set into a new kind of reference work, enlivened with video and sound clips as well as searchable text ready for cutting and pasting into homework. For little more than the price of the $1,500 Encyclopaedia Britannica, families could now own a PC plus an encyclopedia. Sales of the venerable Britannica in the United States and Canada dropped from 117,000 sets in 1990 to 51,000 in `94; in 1996, the foundation that owned the company sold it to a Swiss-based investment group that introduced a succession of new formats and business plans, including more afforable CD-ROMs and online subscriptions.

Some writers foresaw the doom of serious reading itself. In 1994, the Boston-based critic Sven Birkerts published "The Gutenberg Elegies," a passionate requiem for a literary culture that seemed to be vanishing in the face of new technology and the indifference of television- and computer-saturated young people.

For their part, the gurus whose influence Birkerts dreaded conceded that readers would continue to prefer flipping through bound pages to scrolling through electronic text on a screen. No problem, they said. Flexible and rewritable high-contrast electronic paper would keep the printed book's time-tested ergonomics while adding search capabilities and other features of digital media. In 1996, Nicholas Negroponte, director of MIT's Media Lab, informed readers of Wired that this miracle material might be ready "during the next couple of years." The prophets' vision of ubiquitous, electronically delivered information did not actually call for the suppression of literary classics -- in fact, it has made some of those in the public domain more widely available. But in chopping writing into searchable bits and bytes the computer seemed to be discarding the book's soul with its body.

What a change a decade has brought. One of the surprise critical hits of 2003 was "So Many Books" by the Mexican critic Gabriel Zaid. As devoted a book lover as Birkerts, Zaid celebrates rather than mourns. Fifty years after the introduction of television, he writes, the number of titles published worldwide each year has increased fourfold from 250,000 to 1 million -- from 100 books for every million humans to 167. A book is published somewhere in the world every 30 seconds.

Where Birkerts and other pessimists detected a shift from the book, Zaid sees the true problem in the hopeless disproportion between the flood of books and the time and physical space of readers already overwhelmed by the larger information deluge. The speed of publication, Zaid writes, makes us "exponentially more ignorant. If a person reads a book a day, he would be neglecting to read 4,000 others, published the same day."

. . .

What accounts for the shift in mood between these two landmark books about reading? As it turns out, both the optimistic technological prophets and the pessimistic critics of the 1990s overlooked a series of underlying paradoxes about books.

First, books have multiplied partly because they have become less and less important as information storage technologies. As our dependence on them has shrunk, their number and variety has increased, and their status has been if anything enhanced by the attention that the Web has showered on them through online bookselling and discussion groups.

As late as the early 19th century, books were used for many activities for which they were not especially efficient. Major libraries printed their catalogs, and others used handwritten bound volumes. Accounting was literally book-keeping. Bankers had little gilt-edged and leather-bound lists of bond values at different interest rates, and credit reports were extracted from handwritten, bound manuscripts.

But over time, information was cut thinner for easier access and more frequent revision to handle a new flood of products and transactions. Card catalogs replaced printed library catalogs, and were extended as the first true databases. Slide rules reduced reliance on tables. Loose-leaf accounting systems and bookkeeping machines changed the form of business records.

"How Much Information 2003," a recent report of the School of Information Management and Systems of the University of California, Berkeley, shows just how unimportant books and other paper documents have become for information storage. New information has been growing at 30 percent a year, consistent with the techno-evangelists' predictions. In 2002, 5 exabytes -- 500,000 times the capacity of the Library of Congress -- of new information was produced worldwide. Ninety-two percent of it was on hard drives and other magnetic media. Only 0.01 percent of information in all media is stored on paper, and books by one estimate account for less than 2.5 percent of all paper.

Nevertheless, the number of books sold worldwide grew over 45 percent between 1999 and 2001. In the United States new book pages grew by 83 percent during the same period. In short, while there are many more books than there used to be, less and less of our factual data are stored in them.

Second, books have flourished because despite massive increases in computing power, electronic media often were less efficient than they appeared. The CD-ROM seemed the medium of the future by the early 1990s. But beyond reference publishing and specialized offerings, the CD-ROM let the publishing industry down. Without standardized user interfaces or convenient authoring tools, they were time-consuming both to produce and to use and not readily browsed in retail stores. (When did you last see one in a bookshop, except embedded in a thick technical tome?)

It is true that electronic books -- those made available as computer files displayed either on portable devices or computer screens -- have sunnier prospects than CD-ROMs. Major software manufacturers and publishing companies support standard formats. Sales of electronic books rose 27 percent in 2003, and titles in print rose 43 percent to 7,168, according to a report by a group of leading companies cited in Publishers Weekly. But the total revenue is still a modest $7.3 million. And dedicated reading hardware has so far been disappointing. Electronic paper? Philips Research Laboratories of the Netherlands recently announced a breakthrough, but no commercial release date has been set.

But the real limits to e-books are legal and economic rather than technical. As Stephen King discovered midway through the marketing of his serialized downloadable novel "Riding the Bullet" in 2000, they are easily pirated. Clearing copyright in images, a daunting enough challenge for printed books, can stifle new media. (For example, the online edition of the Grove Dictionary of Art, the standard reference in its field, has no image of the Sistine Chapel, the Eiffel Tower, or any work of Pablo Picasso.) As copyright terms have been lengthened and control over visual images concentrated in a few large sources, many experts believe the public domain itself is endangered.

Meanwhile, the transfer of electronic content to new hardware and operating systems remains a vexing challenge for publishers and librarians. That may be why the massive online database WorldCat lists over 3,200 libraries holding printed versions of Bill Gates's "The Road Ahead," while only 71 have electronic copies. Meanwhile, Britannica has reported rebounding interest in its printed version, available again since 2001 after a hiatus in the late 1990s.

Third, and most surprisingly, books survive because technology has made it much easier to write and publish them. Beginning in the 1980s, even the simplest word-processing programs enabled part-time writers to compose and especially to revise without fretting over white-out fluid, scissors, and rubber cement. And publishers started to accept authors' word processing disks, ultimately reducing composition costs despite initial glitches.

More and more people came to believe they could publish and flourish. According to a recent survey, 81 percent of Americans would like to write a book. Some of them are aspiring authors of serious fiction and nonfiction, who have never had an easy road and who now exist in greater numbers than ever, thanks in part to the proliferation of academic writing programs. When "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" can sell 1.1 million copies in a weekend, it's hard to tell anybody to stop dreaming, whatever the odds (or to give up on the video-addicted young). And of course many people without literary gifts -- from Bill Gates to every would-be Tom Peters -- use books to promote their image and ambitions.

The publishing industry has responded to the opportunities opened by new technology. Desktop publishing has slashed composition costs, encouraging thousands of new small publishers to enter the marketplace since the 1980s even as the bigger houses have endured a wave of consolidation. There are now 70,000 publishers in America, up from 21,000 in 1986. And on-demand printing, which uses advanced photocopying and binding equipment to produce a single book or a very small run economically, allowing large and small presses to keep specialized titles in print. It also has blurred the line between vanity and legitimate publishing. With backing from Random House, the on-demand publisher Xlibris adds prospective authors' works to its list for a fee as little as $500, printing copies as requested. In 2003, the company's president told Publishers Weekly that he expected on-demand printing to increase the annual volume of US books published from 100,000 to 200,000 in the near future.

. . .

Were the doomsayers needlessly gloomy? Not entirely. There does seem to be less zest for reading among today's college students than there was in the 1960s and early `70s. In the American meritocracy, general culture ranks far behind job-related learning. In Europe and the United States, demand has not kept up with the expansion of new pages, leading to sagging unit sales -- a sad fact that probably reflects market cycles, not impending extinction. Recent studies suggest that Web browsing and video games take users' time mainly from television rather than from book reading.

To put lamentations in perspective, even in the golden age of print culture from the 1880s to the 1930s, literary men and women were appalled by most Americans' indifference to book buying and by what they saw as the masses' preference for trashy and sensational reading. Book clubs, fine editions, and sets of classics were all launched in order to uplift public tastes. In the late 1950s and `60s, the explosion of new paperback titles, accelerated by swelling public university enrollments, seemed to promise high culture for all.

Why this hope has been largely unfulfilled is a complex story, but the issue is a cultural rather than a technological one. As professional life has become more competitive, more reading is required for continuing education. At a publishers meeting in the 1980s I heard the learned editor of a great literary magazine acknowledge being so exhausted from a long day of reading and editing that he switched on the television at home.

Despite the Internet-powered boom in book collecting, the leisured magnate in his library of rare books is a nearly extinct species. And the obligation of patronage has lagged behind the dream of creation: Poetry Magazine, with only 11,000 subscribers, receives 90,000 submissions a year. And how many aspiring novelists buy and read serious fiction?

Coping with the problems of the new book market will take creative thinking from publishers, librarians, authors, and readers. But it's clear by now that the book needs not last rites but fresh air and exercise.

Edward Tenner is author of "Our Own Devices: The Past and Future of Body Technology" (Knopf) and "Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences." 

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