The Longing for the Physical Book

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

Digital book sales are flat, and polls show that teens are much more prone to read physical books rather than digital ones. Those who proclaimed the death of the physical book when digital sales were skyrocketing clearly were premature in their prediction. The longing for the physical book continues unabated.

A Multi-layered Desire

As a matter of fact, publishers should pay particular attention to this trend because I think it’s a multi-layered desire. Think about the adult coloring book craze. We generally explained the rush to color as a way to relax and as creative expression. But isn’t it also a tactile activity that engages our brains in different ways than using our fingers to tap keys or poke at a screen do? And what about the journaling Bibles, with their wide margins that invite readers’ arty musings of Scripture?

At the advent of the wildly popular adult coloring book movement, I surmised that readers were displaying an interest in visuals in their physical books. As a matter of fact, one of my clients had written and illustrated a blog series on her observations of life, which I tried to convince her would make a fantastic book. The illustrations were artfully done but also poignant, witty, and humorous. The idea was–and is–crazy to use those blogs as a jumping off point into an illustrated memoir. Right? Hm, I don’t think so. She’s skittish about creating such a book proposal, but my eyes would light up if I opened my email inbox one day to find that proposal happily nestled there.

I think a book about Earth with stunning photos, or a travel memoir with artful photos, would do well. Of course, we have no idea if publishers would agree with me. We very well might not be interpreting the trends in the same way.

The Lifestyle Book as a Trend

I’m not the only one pondering the importance of visually-centric books. In Publishers Weekly last week, I read an article about Deb Brody, who is settling into a new position at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt called editorial direction, lifestyle and culinary. Her job is to acquire books that keep up with consumers’ demand for diet, health, and self-help books. As a matter of fact, these lifestyle books comprise the fastest-growing category in the industry. The article describes various trends Brody sees on the health and culinary front.

I perked up when I read this:

Because so many new projects are sourced from social media, where an author’s material–recipes, tips, photography–is free to followers, Brody pays particular attention to what value a physical book offers to a consumer….

Brody is quoted as saying:

We do care a lot about packaging and making sure that the book itself is an object that you want. I think partly the ephemeral effects of social media makes [sic] people long for objects.”

The Physical Book and Ephemera

While the word ephemeral can refer to objects created to be short-lived–such as beautiful gift wrapping as well as our social media offerings–the word has an additional meaning: the collecting of items meant to be short-lived, such as circus tickets or movie posters. In publishing, examples of ephemera can be physical letters tucked into envelopes glued to the book’s pages, or tickets to a play the couple in a novel attended that changed everything for them, or a pressed flower to show its exquisiteness that supplements the copy’s description of the flower.

Social media might be short-lived, but it primes us for books with visuals. We all know that a photo or video brings considerably more attention to a post, a tweet, a comment, or a segment of our websites than mere words. So doesn’t it make sense that we would enjoy visuals in our books? Add to that the fact that books are objects, something to hold, and suddenly one realizes that the physical aspect of a book is a thing of joy to us.

The Physical Book as a Thing of Joy

Think about the qualities of a physical book that individuals tell us they love that aren’t part of reading a digital version: the smell of the paper, the feel of the paper, the joy of turning a page, the ease of moving forward or backward in the book. If we added to those inherent aspects of a book ephemeral details or visuals, wouldn’t readers enjoy the added beauty or fun of those details?

In that same PW issue, Bridget Watson Payne wrote in the Soapbox column an article entitled, “In Praise of the Coffee Table Book.” An art book editor, Payne urges us to retire the term “coffee table book.” That term suggests that we invest in beautiful books to put them on a table and add a seashell or vase on top to create an arrangement. Instead, we should call the books what they are–works of art that can make us happy to actually pick up and enjoy.

Payne enjoins us:

Let’s stop treating visual content like window dressing. Instead let’s start immersing ourselves in the glorious mental bath it is. Let’s soak in art. Let’s wallow in art.


What do you think about the idea of creating visually imaginative physical books? What would you like to see in such books?


Do we enjoy physical books more than digital ones? Click to tweet.

What coloring books, journaling Bibles & lifestyle books tell us about publishing trends. Click to tweet.