With a recent poll1 concluding that the majority of Americans would prefer to return to pre-internet days, are we just seeing a nostalgic yearning for simpler times or is there something deeper and more complex going on?
The poll revealed that the desire to return to an unplugged era is surprisingly strong among the younger generation, and is not strikingly different from those who are old enough to remember not having smartphones and easy internet access. While 77% of Americans aged 35-54 said they would prefer a return to their analog roots – the highest of any group in the survey – an eyebrow-raising 63% of 18- to 34-year-olds also agreed with the sentiment. But a desire to disconnect isn’t simply a matter of nostalgia.
The survey also revealed that 57% of people under 35 agreed with the statement that technology is “more likely to divide people than unite them” – an indication that the social media generation may be growing weary – and wary – of the world of feuding tech billionaires, Chat GPT and Deepfake. But beyond the attention-grabbing posts, there are subtler moves at play.
Research from Keypoint Intelligence reveals that the paperless office is less appealing to the workforce than managers seem to think. A survey of nearly 500 general office workers between the ages of 18 and 69 showed that 62% always or sometimes preferred working on paper, with employees under 35 more likely to prefer working with paper than their older counterparts2. This finding contradicts the assumption that younger generations view print as old-fashioned and irrelevant, when the opposite is often the case. While most adopt a hybrid approach to working, using each technology where most appropriate, the fact remains that pen and paper are often deemed the most effective tools for certain tasks.
The Power of Paper
This surprising preference for paper is borne out by the experience of Taymoor Atighetchi, founder and CEO of the stationery company Papier, which has been a start-up success story since it launched in 2015. “Nostalgia alone isn’t going to build a business,” he says. “The majority of our customers are 25 to 35, so they have got nothing really to reference. The internet was already around when they were born. I think it’s something deeper than nostalgia, something innate and human about receiving physical products.”
Notably, Papier is first and foremost an e-commerce brand. By utilizing the power of digital publishing, it offers print-to-order personalized stationery that ranges from notepads and writing papers to wedding invitations, cards, calendars and planners.
“There are studies that show that when people connect their mind to pen and paper, more thought goes into it,” says Atighetchi. “There’s magic that happens there, compared to when you are writing on WhatsApp. Something happens that makes that message more meaningful.”
From corporate communications to personal letters, from adult coloring books to a surging interest in Origami, it seems that most of us prefer a hands-on, tactile approach to productivity and creativity once in a while. And for those of us who find the demands of the digital-first lifestyle stressful at times, paper may provide just the moment of zen we need.
1 The Harris Poll, June 2023
2 United States Future of Work Survey, Keypoint Intelligence, 2022
The study, commissioned by paper producer Stora Enso, showed 65% of respondents prefer physical books, versus 21% who prefer e-books and 14% audiobooks. The French showed the strongest preference for physical books of any nation. And most said they preferred to read or listen to fiction books for leisure and to get quality time alone.
“These results confirmed our expectations that the market for physical books is set to stay strong, which is good news for our printer and publishing customers,” said Stora Enso’s Jonathan Bakewell, Vice President, Head of Segment Office and Book Papers. But there were some surprise results from the youngest group (16-to-24 year olds) polled, where 70% said they preferred physical books over e-books.
This enthusiasm for books among Gen Zers, who are more likely to be the digital disrupters, seems partially fueled by the manga-book craze, driven by Netflix anime series, as well as a recent explosion in top-selling teen romance books. For older age groups, physical books have been outselling e-books in areas like human potential and mindfulness, particularly during the pandemic as people took pause to look inward.
People have begun rediscovering reading, partly prompted by the pandemic, where many were tethered to their screens all day for work or school, then didn’t want to take them to the sofa when it was time to relax. A majority of respondents (63%) said they read more during Covid, including nearly 70% in the U.K. and U.S. In the youth segment, 64% said they read more and, notably, 76% of young people in the U.S .and 73% in the U.K. During the isolation, the physicality of a book felt more comfortable for some than a digital reader. Some even cited the smell of a physical book that could evoke pleasant memories.
Share of eyes and ears
But even as physical books commanded a larger share of hearts and minds, the study showed there is a time and place for all three book formats, with few respondents saying they stuck to just one. E-books and audio books are more convenient and lighter to carry and can be consumed from multiple devices. And while the book and the e-book are competing for a share of eyes, the audio book is complementary in that it is competing for ears – podcasts, radio, music and other audio media.
Books as carbon storage
Books and the paper they are printed on are circular, and renewable. 42% of readers said they like to keep books when they finish reading them, while 26% loan or donate them. A further 26% sell their books and the remaining 5% recycle or discard them. And while books do emit carbon during production and distribution, they are their own carbon storage units once they’re on our shelves. And it’s important to remember that e-books require energy to manufacture and run their reader devices and to maintain the massive server farms than supply their content.
Carbon neutrality was high on the agenda for most, with 61% of all respondents and 70% of youth saying they would pay more (on average 5.7% of the retail price) for carbon neutral books. A majority would also buy from an outlet that provided carbon neutral or carbon offset books.
The importance of print books became apparent in 2020 as pandemic-related lockdowns and uncertainty resulted in the best year for U.S. print book sales since 2010. According to the latest sales data analysis from NPD, volume in 2020 rose 8.2% year over year to reach 751 million books.
On the face of it, such a rise in print book sales may seem astounding. But when you consider what people have been through over the last year, it’s less of a surprise. Many stuck at home with lots of time on their hands are looking to books as a key source of entertainment, comfort and escapism.
“The U.S. consumer book market looks very different today, than it did back in April,” says Kristen McLean, books industry analyst for NPD. “Sales growth came in waves, from the sudden need to educate kids at home, to the super-heated political cycle. All of the additional time people spent at home created a big appetite for reading, including huge spikes in sales of cookbooks and do-it-yourself books, which helped people stay entertained and engaged.”
Growth in print books was led by juvenile fiction, which contributed one-third of all U.S. books market growth. Juvenile fiction print books, the second largest category on a volume basis, increased 11%, selling 18 million more books in 2020 than in 2019. Adult non-fiction print books, the largest category of books in the U.S. by both volume and sales revenue, increased 4.8% (14 million books) year over year in 2020. Juvenile non-fiction grew 23% (14 million books). With brick-and-mortar bookstores having a tough year resulting from mandatory closures, these figures represent a remarkable resurgence for print books.
For a glimpse at Americans’ collective mood and what they are turning to for entertainment and comfort, you need look no further than the top-selling titles of 2020. Despite being released after the November elections, 2020’s top seller was “A Promised Land,” the memoir of former President Barack Obama, selling 2.68 million copies. Of the top 10 books, more than half were aimed at either kids or the young adult market. The number two seller was “Midnight Sun” by Stephenie Meyer, a young adult-aimed novel that is a companion to the 2005 bestseller “Twilight.” Third on the Top 10 list is the latest in the wildly popular Dog Man series of graphic novels by Dave Pilkey, “Dog Man: Grime and Punishment.”
But it’s not just the U.S. that has been rediscovering its love of print books. Sales in the U.K. have been soaring as well. According to the latest figures by Nielsen, more than 200 million print books were sold in the UK last year – that’s the most books in a 12-month period since 2012. Nielsen estimates that the volume of print books sold increased by 5.2% compared to 2019, which equates to 202 million books sold, worth a whopping $2.4 billion.
Like top sellers in the U.S., leading sellers in the U.K provide a window into Brits’ frame of mind. In third place was the cookbook “Pinch of Nom – Everyday Light,” with Richard Osman’s crime thriller “The Thursday Murder Club” in second. First place went to Charlie Mackesy’s The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse, an illustrated tale of friendship and life lessons described as “a book of hope for uncertain times.”
Given the popularity of e-readers, it’s heartening to see the resilience and continuing success of print books. Whether it’s the increased feeling of connection a reader gets to a story, the tactile pleasure of touching a physical book, or simply the enjoyment of turning a real page, print books have an important role in helping people to step out of real life for a while and lower levels of stress and anxiety. Perhaps someone should write a book about it.