The Decline of the Print Industry

By Sama Imran Ilyas

I recently had the heartbreaking experience of watching a local bookstore go out of business. Sadly, this wasn’t unprecedented. 

The first major hit the print industry took that was observable to the general public was when Borders declared bankruptcy in 2011 and liquidated 226 stores. By the end of 2011, all Borders stores and outlets were permanently closed. After the closing of Borders, small bookstores and large chains have followed suit. According to Bowker, a company that serves to aid booksellers and publishers with management, print book production had a noticeable dip in the year 2013. These outcomes are most noticeable in smaller retailers, which are going out of business or becoming bankrupt. 

The news from Chicago, often considered the capitol of the printing industry, isn’t much better. A recently published article in Chicago Business claims that there is currently one last printing company in the area. Printing industry jobs have dropped by almost 50% over the past ten years. In economic terms, people associated with the print industry may be victims of structural unemployment. Just as the record or floppy disk industries are now virtually obsolete, could the print industry also have a grim future?

What is the cause for this decline? Many speculate that moving everything to online and electronic platforms has greatly diminished the use of physical texts. The recent explosion of tablet and e-reader use is currently cited as the main culprit. E-readers are now becoming more refined, with many major technology companies partaking and investing in the new venture. 

The problem isn’t only localized to the United States–it is global. A main Canadian bookseller, Indigo, announced millions in losses within the past year. Printing stores in Europe are also experiencing the same effects, with a bookseller in France claiming that Amazon has taken over the French market. Furthermore, there are new incentives for publishers to support the use of e-books. They are gaining a larger marginal revenue from e-books because of the ease of selling and distributing them. Top publishers like Random Penguin are now obtaining 25% of their total revenue from e-books.

This shift from physical to electronic print is also being backed up by education systems. A recent article in the LA Times concerns Florida Polytechnic University, which recently opened the first library in the United States to contain no actual physical books. The new university, which welcomes its inaugural class this fall, is shifting away from using paper. They are offering a catalog with more than a hundred thousand e-books.

Critics of e-books suggest that the lack of tactile sensations when reading an e-book as compared to a physical book could greatly hinder the educational benefit derived from reading. There was a study done on this idea, which found that Kindle readers were not able to comprehend texts as well as paperback readers.

Should the industry slip into more danger, government intervention may be an option. The French government passed a law to protect local bookstores by preventing free shipment. However, as technology increases, it is hard to control the shift in industries. There is a limit to how far the printing industry can be protected.

So what is the future of the print industry? Uncertain at most, for now. For many people, including myself, a bookstore is a place of solace. As Michael Kozlowski, editor-in-chief of Good e-Readerputs it, “bookstores [are] a place where like minded souls conglomerate for the love of literature.” Whether e-readers, e-books, and e-libraries will indefinitely replace physical books will depend on the general public and its evolving reading habits and preferences.

Sama Imran Ilyas is a senior at the University of Florida. She was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa in her junior year. The University of Florida is home to the Beta of Florida Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.