Peter Osnos
Jul 30 · 5 min read
Credit: flickr/ Pedro Ribeiro Simões

Analog (adjective): “Not involving or relating to the use of computer technology, as a contrast to a digital counterpart.”

In 2016, David Sax published a book (with PublicAffairs) called “The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter.”

Michiko Kakutani, then the chief book critic of The New York Times, chose the book as one of her ten best of the year, writing, “Sax provides an insightful and entertaining account of this phenomenon creating a powerful counter narrative to the techno-Utopian belief that we would live in an ever improving, all-digital world.”

Only three years later, Sax’s insight is more noticeable than ever. It is not just that big tech’s size and policies on privacy and content are being challenged, which they are with considerable force. But the various ways analog is recovering from the massive disruptions of the past two decades is increasingly clear. Sax was right in his book title to call it “Revenge.” This is just an essay — to be published digitally — so I’ll choose “resilience.”

I began to observe this fact anecdotally and then as a trend and now as an immutable reality.

I asked my college undergraduate class how they get their information. Most answered it was on their phone. But when it came to books, they all, all, said they preferred print. I attributed this to having grown up reading Harry Potter. I now realize that it was more than that.

Ask reporters at the digital-first New York Times where they most want their bylines to appear and the answer is likely to be (I haven’t interviewed them all) on page one of the print newspaper. Why? On the home page there are no bylines and the pages are being constantly updated. In print, their names are featured forever, despite the canard about day old newspapers lining cat boxes. And what else do reporters like? It is being interviewed on the Times’ hit podcast “The Daily” because it is their name and their voice telling the story.

And what is a podcast? It is radio on demand, a 100 year-old medium; radio designed for today’s listeners with ear buds and commutes, multi-tasking while exercising or doing chores.

I’ve been collecting evidence in headlines of the analog resilience. Here are a few drawn from traditional media (reflecting my generational bias). And my analog extends to all the traditional means of distribution, not just the printed page.

“Netflix is set to lose “Friends,” its most popular programming.” These are re-runs of a network series of a time past. “The Office” is another network-originated smash in the streaming age. They are wildly popular on streaming services, despite the wealth of new and varied content.

“The Next Chapter: How One Independent Bookstore Has Survived and Even Thrived in The Age of Amazon.” Statistics and testimonials support the notion that “indies” as they are known are holding their own in the digital age, selling almost exclusively print books and coffee, complemented by author visits, discussions and a sense of community.

“Movie Stars Demand Big Screen Certainty.” Will Smith made a non-negotiable demand that Warner Brothers release his new film theatrically before streaming it online. Theater release is still a signal that a movie has commercial or substantive stature. (It also needs to be said that the success of cable-streaming multi-part series is an undoubted and very welcome addition to this story-telling era, which may sound like a contradiction in terms, but streaming is the best way for this kind of longer-form saga.)

The New York Times Book Review editor, Pamela Paul, opened up a piece, noting that she “finds that new products can be less efficient than the tools they replace.” In a Times column she observed: “I still regret uploading my CDs at the behest of my husband who is far more techno than I am. Recently I bought portable CD players for two of my kids. I think about digging out the vinyl again. Maybe I’ll pick up a ‘new” record player one of these days.”

I am a music fan all the way back to 1950s in rock, folk, standards and jazz. I’m sure I’ve bought some of the same tunes on 45s, 78s, 33s, cassettes, CDs and now Apple Music and Pandora. That is capitalism, where we pay for innovation because we can. I tried recently to get a new case for my Apple iPhone 6. At the Apple store I was told it was no longer available because that model is “obsolete.” A vendor on the street outside sold me a cool case for $10. A street vendor is definitely analog.

And consider this: In a relatively early phase of the Internet in 1998, PublicAffairs released a print version of the Starr Report on President Clinton’s relationship with Monica Lewinsky featuring commentary from The Washington Post. We shipped it by air, and it was in most stores in 72 hours. Our records show that it sold 156, 000 copies. This spring a comparable book version of the Mueller Report with Post commentary sold 253,000, took ten days or so to reach stores and has been at or near the top of bestseller lists since April. There were two other print versions that also seemed to do well, plus digital and audio versions. All of that happened even though the report could be downloaded — which I did — and read in digital form for free.

I’m most familiar with the viability of analog in the book business. A small feature in the New York Times Magazine (print edition) asked this question: “Dear reader: Do you read your books in paper or in digital form?”

The results of 4151 readers who chose to participate:

“I only read paper books –27 percent

“I read books mostly on paper -44 percent

“I read books mostly in digital-26 percent

“I only read books in digital -3 percent”

These numbers reflect the spread of platforms for books in the last 12 years. When the Amazon Kindle first appeared in 2007, it was the device that made e-books broadly available. The assumption was that the digital book would overwhelm print because of instant availability, a lower price and the efficiency of packing a heavy shelf into a hand-held package.

That has not happened. The current breakdown of book sales is about 70 percent in print, 20 percent digital and 10 percent downloadable audio, which, like e-books, is dominated by Amazon. In fact, the fastest growing segment of the book business is downloadable narrative (overtaking CD sales) of books of all kinds, except those for children or with pictures. Yes, the delivery is digital. But the content is analog and, like podcasts, reflects the impact of storytelling in your ear.

Will analog ultimately replace digital? No. The history of technology is that the means of distribution evolve, but the contents are usually eternal. Radio was supposed to be doomed by television. Movie theaters were supposed to be doomed by network television, which was supposed to be doomed by cable and now streaming. There are major adjustments when delivery systems change. But analog is both more resilient than most tech gurus forecast — and in its way, satisfyingly reliable.

Peter Osnos’ Platform

Perspectives on journalism and publishing from a longtime journalist and publisher

Peter Osnos

Written by

Founder in 1997 of PublicAffairs, an imprint of Perseus Books at Hachette Book Group

Peter Osnos’ Platform

Perspectives on journalism and publishing from a longtime journalist and publisher

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