Murder they wrote: The narrative of the printed book being ’killed’ by the advent of e-books has not come to fruition. Picture: ISTOCK
Murder they wrote: The narrative of the printed book being ’killed’ by the advent of e-books has not come to fruition. Picture: ISTOCK

After years of sales growth, major publishers have reported a fall in their e-book sales for the first time this year, introducing new doubts about the potential of e-books in the publishing industry.

A Penguin executive even admitted recently that the hype around e-books may have driven unwise investment, with the company losing too much confidence in "the power of the word on the page".

Yet, despite the increasing realisation that digital and print can coexist in the market, the question of whether the e-book will "kill" the print book continues to surface.

It doesn’t matter if the intention is to predict or dismiss this possibility; the potential disappearance of the book does not cease to stir our imagination.

Why is this idea so powerful? Why do we continue to question the encounter between e-books and print books in terms of a struggle, even if evidence points to their peaceful coexistence?

The answers to these questions go beyond e-books and tell us more about the mixture of excitement and fear we feel about innovation and change. The idea of one medium "killing" another has often followed the unveiling of new technologies.

Even before the advent of digital technologies, critics predicted the demise of existing media. After television was invented, many claimed radio would die.

But radio survived by finding new uses; people started listening in cars, during train rides and on factory floors.

The myth of the disappearing book isn’t new either.

As early as 1894, there was speculation that the introduction of the phonograph would spell the demise of books: they would be replaced by what we today call audiobooks.

This happened again and again. Movies, radio, television, hyperlinks and smartphones – all conspired to destroy print books as a source of culture and entertainment. Some claimed the end of books would result in cultural regression and decline. Others envisioned utopian digital futures, overstating the advantages of e-books.

It is not by chance that the idea of the death of the book surfaces in moments of technological change. This narrative perfectly conveys the mixture of hopes and fears that characterise our deepest reactions to technological change.

To understand why these reactions are so common, consider that people create emotional bonds with media as they become an integral part of their daily lives.

Numerous studies have shown how people develop a close relationship with objects such as books, television sets and computers. Sometimes, people even humanise them, giving names to their cars or shouting at their laptops when they don’t work properly.

As a result, the emergence of a new technology doesn’t just indicate economic and social change. It also causes us to adjust our relationship with something that has become a part of our day-to-day life.

Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

As a result, we find ourselves longing for what we used to know, but no longer have. And it’s why entire industries develop around retro products and older technologies.

The spread of the printing press in 15th-century Europe, for example, made people seek out original manuscripts. The shift from silent to sound movies in the 1920s stimulated nostalgia for the older form.

The same happened in the shift from analogue to digital photography, from vinyls to CDs, or from black-and-white to colour television.

Not surprisingly, e-readers stimulated a new appreciation for the material quality of "old" books – and even for their often unpleasant smell.

The people who still worry for the disappearance of print books may rest assured: books have endured many technical revolutions and are in the best position to survive this one.

Yet the myth of the disappearing medium will continue to provide an appealing narrative about the transformative power of technology and our aversion to change.

In fact, one of the strategies we employ in order to make sense of change is the use of narrative patterns that are available and familiar, such as narratives of death and ending.

Easy to remember and to spread, the story of the death of media reflects our excitement for the future, as well as our fear of losing parts of our intimate world — and finally, of ourselves.

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