How long until the physical book is dead?

Boy wearing cap

Times have changed

Although the invention of printing is largely accredited to Gutenberg with his introduction of the metal plate technique in 1452, it really stemmed from the Chinese some 6 centuries before. However, even though Gutenberg (and then Caxton) started the ‘mass-production’ of books, it wasn’t until the rapid rise of literacy during the Victorian era (in 1840 over 30% of grooms and 50% of brides were literate compared to well over 95% by the turn of the century) had taken effect, that the possession of books became truly commonplace.

It’s now just over a century since then and we’re contemplating scrapping physical books entirely. E-book sales are now significantly exceeding those of printed books by varyingly accredited factors (this depends upon your point of view) but there’s no doubt that one is on the up and the other is on the way out. A simple tablet computer can hold tens of thousands of books, be searchable, updatable, capable of remembering where you are in each book, allow you to scribble notes and highlight text at your will. Not only that, e-books are cheaper and immediate. A few seconds after placing your order, you can be perusing its virtual pages.

No doubt there is a book-buying generation who won’t make the transition but they’re the same generation with failing eyesight and a demographic trend towards the final 3 letters one encounters in this world, RIP. Even allowing for POD (Print On Demand) books, there must be a point in the not too distant future where possessing a physical book will be as rare as it was half a millennium previously.