What Books Have That Newspapers Don't

Jack Schafer has put together a great article on Slate detailing one more reason that newspapers aren’t doing so well in the transition from print to digital. News is primarily social currency, social currency (of this type) needs to be relevant, timely and recognized as important by one’s network. Schafer argues that social networks do all of these things better than news (paper or online).

So what happens when we apply this same argument to books? For this, I’m going to start with the use cases Ben Vershbow, formerly of the Institute for the Future of the Book, laid out in a presentation I saw earlier this year.

On his model, book has value in three fundamental ways:

  1. Convenient container for reference materials
  2. Durable, portable, ergonomic device for sustained narrative
  3. Fetish object

You might be able to make a case for newspapers fulfilling number one (though it would really depend on how you defined ‘reference’) but two and three don’t really work. Am I the only one who first started reading the Guardian Weekly just because it was so much easier to hold?

Now, as above, I realize that we need add Social Currency as an important fourth use case for books.

Is social currency contained in the third case, i.e. possessing a fetish object? No. A desired object fulfills a need that may or may not be based on wanting others to perceive you in a certain way because of that possession. That certainly overlaps with social currency but it doesn’t exhaust it.

Currency allows you to build and nourish relationships with others because of shared information or experience that is valuable to both parties. Newspapers can only do this by providing snapshots. If that snapshot can be captured more quickly and richly somewhere else, the value of a newspaper sinks.

Books provide a deeper and less time-sensitive entry point into this exchange. It doesn’t matter when you immersed yourself into Wuthering Heightsyou can still discuss the lives of Heathcliff and Catherine with someone 10 years from now. Same for the latest federal political scandal? Not so much.

Can social networks do this better than books? Nope. Not yet. It’s a difference experience that isn’t yet threatened. Whew.