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Is Vinyl Forecasting the Future
of Print Books?

Sales Are Surging, By the Way

by Craig Stark

#166 13 May 2013

I was talking to a friend recently about print books and asked her if she had ever placed her hand on a page after reading an especially moving passage, almost as if to ... hold it. "Yes!" she said. "Many times." Well, I have too. Many times. Then I asked her if she had ever done something similar to a computer monitor or the screen of any device she was reading a book on. "No." Same here, no - heck no, in fact - though we do touch screens, of course, to perform tasks on touch-screen devices.

Similarly - and I'll explain why I say "similar" shortly - at a recent estate sale, I was talking to a record dealer I've known for many years. There were perhaps another half dozen record dealers there as well - or least dealers of some sort - flipping through records. During the midst of this, he turned to me and said, "You know, ten years ago I would have had all of this to myself. Now look."

The latter conversation is illustrative of what's happening with vinyl these days. No secret: There's been a resurgence. More dealers are looking for vinyl records because more are selling. While overall sales of albums in all formats declined 5% in 2012, funny thing - vinyl sales were up 18% and in fact were the highest they've been since 1997. Vinyl sales still represent a fairly small percentage of the overall music market, but recall that vinyl's "Mark Twain" obituary was written many years ago, over and over and over, and yet this doesn't sound like anything that ever left us. Maybe it just went to sleep for a few years while we gave digitization a spin.

There are reasons for this, though not all of them are shared by all concerned. Some say vinyl sounds better. "Better," of course, is not necessarily a quantifiable term, but there's no question that vinyl sound is different than digitized sound. Apologists of vinyl will sometimes point to the analog signal as the reason why. Analog signals are continuous, for one thing - also called infinite resolution (in theory). By contrast, digital signals have finite resolution. And what would you rather listen to? A recording that captures all of the content of a performance or one that captures minute snippets of it and compresses them into a sort of faux sound? Worse (some say), all naturally occurring background noise is edited out in digitized recordings, producing a clinically clean sound, and if the resulting file is compressed, as it is in most MPG formats, there is additional loss of content.

But is it just the sound? I had a roommate long ago who was something of an audiophile. I still remember watching him go through the ritual of playing a record - carefully withdrawing it from its sleeve, holding it gently by its edges as he placed it on the turntable and switching it on, delicately lifting the needle, placing it on the record, closing the lid .... And there is the physical presence of the album - not only the record but the cover art, liner notes, lyrics and sometimes posters, inserts, etc. It was a presentation along with the sound, and this explains why about one quarter vinyl buyers don't play their records. It sort of reminds me of ...

... books.

Books, of course, are the bibliographic equivalent of vinyl, not to mention the analog equivalent, and recall that cassettes and CD's began the process of eroding vinyl sales years before digitized books affected sales of print books. Just as it is with vinyl, the experience of reading a print book is different than reading a digitized book. When books are held, passages touched, etc., there's a much stronger human connection as well as an analog-ic wholeness to print books that becomes linear in a digitized format.

This isn't simply a generational distinction as many pundits have attempted to portray it as. Young people are buying vinyl too - in fact, that's where much of the action is now. And, after all, diehard vinyl collectors share much in common with book collectors, seeking first pressings or limited issues, prizing that which represents a performer seeing a recording through to its first and often most faithful-to-original-intention appearance. And note also that there are many vinyl recordings that don't exist in digitized formats. Sound familiar?

Numerous obituaries have been written about print books in recent years as well. But let's put these so-called prophetic assertions to rest once and for all. What's happened to vinyl is prophetic evidence that print books will survive and thrive.

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