Are books dying?

This morning, I attended the Chicago Area Children’s Book Publisher Spring preview, and it turned out to be a very thought-provoking session. I went mostly to support our local publishers, and to support the Center for Teaching through Children’s Books.  I wasn’t expecting the very engaging, very interesting, but very worrisome second half of the program.

Sourcebook’s publisher Dominique Raccah made the provocative statement that she believes hardcover books will not be being published five years from now.  I never believe people when they say things like that, but I don’t know that I would have believed how quickly many people stopped using the phone except to text. Things move very fast now.

She was very persuasive, not just because of the graphs showing the tremendous increase in digital books being sold in the past year, though she seemed very knowledgeable on that front.  No, the most persuasive thing was how beautiful picture books look on an iPad, and how appealing it is to be able to change font sizes to whatever is comfortable to you, and how compelling it is to have books with sound or video clips. She kept showing us things and saying, “Isn’t that COOL?” and you know what? It was really cool. People are going to want them. I want them.

There’s been a slightly heated discussion going on at the Cooperative Children’s Book Center’s listserv on picture books, and why sales might be down. Is it, as the infamous New York Time’s article claimed, that parents are pushing their children to start chapter books and quit reading picture books, or is it more the cost? If it’s the latter, Raccah makes it clear that the cost will not go down with e-books–if anything, they are more expensive to produce because of the different platforms.

Two things worry me a great deal about this. First, there are many families in one of my library’s school districts that still don’t have a computer at home. The likelihood of their owning an iPad or a Nook or any other digital device anytime soon is low.  Reading can’t become something that only wealthier people get to do, for so many reasons. Second, I am not seeing where libraries are going to fit into this new world. The very thing that makes the new reading devices so wonderful–their ability to hold lots and lots of books at once–means even if a library invested in a $250 color Nook, one person would walk out with it and all of the books it holds.  I can’t imagine a library who could keep up with that.

I was hoping to wait until the market settled down and one format dominated the way videotapes won out over Beta, but now I’m thinking we can’t afford to wait that long. The question is, what’s the first step? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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