Commentary, Opinion

Physical books are worth their cost

The holiday season is approaching, and as many people start the scramble to find gifts for loved ones, friends, or coworkers, a harsh discovery awaits them. Tried and true, books have remained one of the best gifts to give on any occasion, the perfect balance between thoughtful and casual. However, the tumultuous pandemic economy has caused paper, ink, and printing presses to be in high demand, leading to an increase in book prices. The days when a hardcover novel did not cost an arm and a leg are long over, with the average adult fiction book priced at around $34.00 CAD. The rising price of books is just one of the negative effects of current inflation trends threatening the extinction of libraries and smaller book businesses. Everyone must do their part by buying books from local bookstores, and remembering to plan ahead to avoid resorting to large corporate sellers like Amazon. 

Though the pandemic has led to a recent spike in demand for books, it is getting progressively more expensive to produce them. The price of wood pulp rose approximately 71 per cent this year after an environmental initiative in China led to the shutdown of many pulp and paper mills. The large price change has made book prices skyrocket and production timelines slow. Further, the supply chain has taken a hit due to the pandemic, and lengthy shipping delays are predicted for this upcoming holiday season. This seeming book shortage will certainly put a hamper on many people’s plans to shop last minute, as there will be fewer books stocked on the shelves, and delayed projected delivery times—some stretching well into the new year. 

With the many roadblocks to obtaining physical copies of books this year, the growing market for online literature like e-books, Kindles, Kobos has skyrocketed. Online literature tends to be cheaper—no manufacturing, distribution or shipping costs—so with book prices increasing this year, more cost-conscious consumers might pursue those options in lieu of purchasing a physical copy. Also more environmentally friendly, investing in a Kindle or another digital library, saves paper. While there are benefits to making the switch to online, physical books are still overall the better choice. 

McGill, too, has hopped on this online literature bandwagon. Many English courses have started to offer their texts in PDF form, selecting readings available from online resource platforms or offering online course packs so students do not have to purchase an entire short story collection. McGill courses in general have also adapted to online life: The majority of assignments can be submitted online, reducing the need for physical copies of papers—and even some exams are now delivered online. Though, with the hybrid learning scheme, many students find themselves struggling to adapt to fully remote learning. If physical copies of textbooks and novels are slowly phased out, it is almost certain that students’ productivity will suffer, with  reading on paper being important for neurological comprehension. Reducing screen time by doing readings and note-taking offline helps both concentration and retention, and reduces eye strain.

This phenomenon also has consequences for libraries. They, too, risk being rendered useless. This is especially dismaying, as libraries are one of the only public places people can visit without having to pay. Small businesses are also affected, with non-chain bookstores relying heavily on an in-person customer base. While larger names like Indigo and Barnes & Noble may be able to stay afloat in this transitioning market, smaller names like Montreal’s S.W. Welch Bookseller might not. 

However, it would be unlikely that such a change in the literary market would happen before it could be prevented. Yet, to keep the magical world of printed literature alive, everyone must do their part: Keep buying books—especially from small businesses—and get any holiday shopping done sooner rather than later to ensure there are no empty presents under the tree. 

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