Has the Digital Age Made Books Obsolete?

Headphone and books

Dr. Tamar Avnet

Professor of Marketing and Chair of the Marketing Department, Sy Syms School of Business

Tamar AvnetIn order to answer this question, one first needs to understand what value a book brings to its readers.

In marketing, we differentiate between a product’s features and the value or benefits derived from these features.  For example, there is an old saying attributed to Revlon: “In the factory, we manufacture cosmetics. At the beauty counter, we sell hope.” Whoever said this knew that customers do not buy features (cosmetic ingredients); they buy benefits (hope). These benefits help users accomplish their ultimate goals and realize certain values or end states.

What might those values or end states be when it comes to a book, and what then is different or similar between the physical existence of the written word versus its virtual twins, the audio book or e-book?

Obviously, both kinds provide information about or a glimpse into an imaginative far-away world since the written or spoken word is the same regardless of its format. What is missing, though, is how our senses experience these words or, more specifically, the vessel in which it is delivered to us. In my research on affect and feelings, I found that the feelings derived from a product are crucial to the evaluation, price and consumption of that product. Can the way a story is consumed influence the reading experience?

The benefits derived from an audio book or an e-book are clear and mostly functional, as they serve the purpose of efficiency: easy to carry (many books inserted into one device), easy to read or listen to (font size is adjustable, screen is illuminated, ear pods are wireless), easy to care for and are immediate (download in a click of a button). The physical book requires a trip to the store or a wait online for delivery, it demands its own personal space and it needs to be cared for and protected. These exact features that make it less efficient are also the ones that make it more lovable and cherished.

The fact that a book is physically there for us and needs our attention, that we can cuddle it in our hands, feel it and bend it are exactly the reasons people feel good about reading a book. It occupies not just one of our senses (hearing in the case of an audio book or vision in an e-book), it occupies our sense of vision, our sense of touch, our sense of hearing (the rustle of the pages) and our sense of smell. By activating these other senses simultaneously, the physical book brings value to the reader that can never be brought on by an audio book or e-book; it evokes our emotional system and through that allows us to experience the story on a higher emotional level.

Going back to the original question, then, the physical book will always be a part of human lives as long as part of being human is to feel and experience emotions.