Don’t Burn Your Books—Print Is Here to Stay

The Book of the Future

The Book of the Future

The e-book had its moment, but sales are slowing. Readers still want to turn those crisp, bound pages.

Lovers of ink and paper, take heart. Reports of the death of the printed book may be exaggerated.

Ever since Amazon introduced its popular Kindle e-reader five years ago, pundits have assumed that the future of book publishing is digital. Opinions about the speed of the shift from page to screen have varied. But the consensus has been that digitization, having had its way with music and photographs and maps, would in due course have its way with books as well. By 2015, one media maven predicted a few years back, traditional books would be gone.

Half a decade into the e-book revolution, though, the prognosis for traditional books is suddenly looking brighter. Hardcover books are displaying surprising resiliency. The growth in e-book sales is slowing markedly. And purchases of e-readers are actually shrinking, as consumers opt instead for multipurpose tablets. It may be that e-books, rather than replacing printed books, will ultimately serve a role more like that of audio books—a complement to traditional reading, not a substitute.

How attached are Americans to old-fashioned books? Just look at the results of a Pew Research Center survey released last month. The report showed that the percentage of adults who have read an e-book rose modestly over the past year, from 16% to 23%. But it also revealed that fully 89% of regular book readers said that they had read at least one printed book during the preceding 12 months. Only 30% reported reading even a single e-book in the past year.

What’s more, the Association of American Publishers reported that the annual growth rate for e-book sales fell abruptly during 2012, to about 34%. That’s still a healthy clip, but it is a sharp decline from the triple-digit growth rates of the preceding four years.

The initial e-book explosion is starting to look like an aberration. The technology’s early adopters, a small but enthusiastic bunch, made the move to e-books quickly and in a concentrated period. Further converts will be harder to come by. A 2012 survey by Bowker Market Research revealed that just 16% of Americans have actually purchased an e-book and that a whopping 59% say they have “no interest” in buying one.

Meanwhile, the shift from e-readers to tablets may also be dampening e-book purchases. Sales of e-readers plunged 36% in 2012, according to estimates from IHS iSuppli, while tablet sales exploded. When forced to compete with the easy pleasures of games, videos and Facebook on devices like the iPad and the Kindle Fire, e-books lose a lot of their allure. The fact that an e-book can’t be sold or given away after it’s read also reduces the perceived value of the product.

Beyond the practical reasons for the decline in e-book growth, something deeper may be going on. We may have misjudged the nature of the electronic book.

From the start, e-book purchases have skewed disproportionately toward fiction, with novels representing close to two-thirds of sales. Digital best-seller lists are dominated in particular by genre novels, like thrillers and romances. Screen reading seems particularly well-suited to the kind of light entertainments that have traditionally been sold in supermarkets and airports as mass-market paperbacks.

These are, by design, the most disposable of books. We read them quickly and have no desire to hang onto them after we’ve turned the last page. We may even be a little embarrassed to be seen reading them, which makes anonymous digital versions all the more appealing. The “Fifty Shades of Grey” phenomenon probably wouldn’t have happened if e-books didn’t exist.

Readers of weightier fare, including literary fiction and narrative nonfiction, have been less inclined to go digital. They seem to prefer the heft and durability, the tactile pleasures, of what we still call “real books”—the kind you can set on a shelf.

E-books, in other words, may turn out to be just another format—an even lighter-weight, more disposable paperback. That would fit with the discovery that once people start buying digital books, they don’t necessarily stop buying printed ones. In fact, according to Pew, nearly 90% of e-book readers continue to read physical volumes. The two forms seem to serve different purposes.

Having survived 500 years of technological upheaval, Gutenberg’s invention may withstand the digital onslaught as well. There’s something about a crisply printed, tightly bound book that we don’t seem eager to let go of.

— Nicholas Carr is the author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.

A breath of fresh air from Nicholas Carr in the Wall Street Journal.

Forget the hype that has surrounded e-books, real books, those books you hold in your hands, are here to stay.

I recently downloaded from tax dodging Amazon NeverSeconds at a special price of 99p.

Can I simply download onto laptop and do as I wish? Oh no. I have to download to a Kindle, or first download and install a Kindle reader then download NeverSeconds to the Kindle reader.

The Kindle reader is a joke. The layout of NeverSeconds is abysmal. Whether this is the Kindle reader or the e-book I do not know.

I decided to transfer to Calibre which has a superior reader. Not possible.

I searched for NeverSeconds, found it, though hidden by a code name. Dragged and dropped into Calibre. Success? Err no. I hit the obscenity of DRM, it will not let me read NeverSeconds. Yes, I can strip off the DRM, but why should I be put to all this trouble?

When I buy a book, I expect to be free to do as I wish with it. Only with an e-book, you have not bought it, you have leased it (often at an obscene price) and are not free to do with it as you wish. Oh and to add to the obscenity, books downloaded from tax dodger Amazon are a propriety format, not an Open Source format like ePub which can be read on many devices, and Amazon at a whim can delete all the books on your Kindle.

Attendance at the e-book debate at the Guildford Book Festival illustrated the interest or lack thereof in e-books. It was very poorly attended.

Sales of e-readers peaked in 2011 at 25 million and have now gone into decline. 25 million is infinitesimal to the number of people who read. A fad that never really took off, hype and nothing more, and now is in terminal decline.

The irony is that failing book chain Waterstone’s decided to promote the Kindle in 2012 in its stores. An act of sheer desperation to promote a product of a rival, to encourage download of e-books from a rival.

Waterstone’s lacks any businesses acumen, no understanding of books or the book trade. With NeverSeconds, Waterstone’s had a potential Christmas best seller on their hands. It was not on display, the staff not a clue. It would be difficult to imagine any writer had more publicity than Martha Payne, and yet Waterstone’s failed to capitalise on it. A repeat of what happened in 2011 with Aleph. An international best seller, a world renowned author, but not on display, the staff not a clue.

The future of books is likely to be many small publishers (who do not treat books as a commodity), small publishers like Cargo Publishing, and a return of small indie bookshops, who know their books, love books.

We can see this with many indie coffee shops springing up, serving quality coffee, home made cakes. Very often these coffee shops are little artistic and literary oasis, with art on display, books to read, even to borrow. For example Café 44 has art on display.

We see this with music. A site like bandcamp provides a platform for artists to share and sell their music. Last year bandcamp passed $20 million direct into the pocket of grass root musicians. This month it may pass $30 million.

Audio books too on bandcamp, for example The Way of the Bow.

Where e-books will have a future is as a niche for specialist low volume, for those who really do prefer a Kindle to a real book, but mainly as low price, less than a dollar, no DRM, ePub Open Source format easily shared, read, and if you like, go out and buy a real book.

We saw a glimpse of this future last year when Paulo Coelho made his entire back catalogue available at less than 99 cents per e-book. Excluded The Alchemist and unfortunately restricted to North America. Within a few days downloads had increased by 4,000%, but more importantly, it led to increase in sales of real books.

E-books as hyped are a gimmick, and like all gimmicks they will pass their sell-by date and fade away.

Books are here to stay, why the surprise?

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6 Responses to “Don’t Burn Your Books—Print Is Here to Stay”

  1. Misako Says:

    I was also freaked out about buying e-books after reading this:

    Amazon Japan started offering e-books last year, so I though I could save a big shipping cost, but alas, they rejected my order because I don’t live in Japan. People told me that if I created a Japanese address (borrowing from my friend or something, since my family don’t live there anymore), I would be able to buy…. but no, no thanks. I’d rather pay shipping cost to get “my books”, I realized.

  2. keithpp Says:

    I am surprised there is not sufficient market in US for Japanese books, that not readily available.

    Apart from the obvious an e-book is not a real book and lacks the pleasure of reading a real book, there are a whole load of issues associated with e-books.

    A book does not monitor what you are reading an e-reader does.

    At a whim, Amazon can wipe clean your Kindle of all the books you have paid to read. One of the books they have wiped, Nineteen Eighty-Four.

    When I buy a book, I can do what I like with it, not so an e-book, where all you have done is paid for the right to read it. Often an obscene price, that bears no resemblance to cost, as the costs approach zero.

    The cost of an e-book should should be less than a dollar reflecting actual costs and that it is an inferior experience to a real book. Something maybe to sample, if liked, you go out and buy a real book.

    Hollywood set the trend to criminalise people who may watch a film. Regional encoding, encryption. Download and install AnyDVD or DVD Fab Passkey and strip off. Also can be used to strip out the annoying adverts before the film.

    Books, like films, are now commodities, the same global corporations. Propriety formats for e-books from Amazon, though others to their credit use EPub, an Open Source non-propriety format.

    DRM (Digital Rights Management) dictates what you can do with the e-book, on what it can be read, where it can be read.

    Small publishers to their credit are making e-books available DRM free. Depressing that Cargo Publishing have chosen to put DRM on NeverSeconds, though maybe dictated by tax dodger Amazon.

    We need for e-books something like bandcamp for music and audio books, easy to use, easy to share (indeed are encouraged to share).

    This is even more important when in the world of real books, have bad bookshop chains like Watersone’s who act like gatekeepers and only display what they are bribed to display by big publishers. A real bookshop would display based on merit to bring to attention of readers books worth reading.

    • Misako Says:

      Thank you for the information, and yes, I agree –e-books should be for the purpose of easy-sharing, not for snooping around what people read.

      Yes, it’s been a headache to find books in my mother tongue in here. If I go to a big city, there is a big bookstore handling some Japanese books… but sadly, the bookstore only displays like Watersone’s… what they are bribed by a big publisher; I can’t find my liking from those commercial-friendly books.

  3. keithpp Says:

    Yesterday I visited Waterstone’s, the High Street branch in Lincoln. This was my experience of asking for NeverSeconds (a book and author with masses of publicity), not a single copy, not aware of …

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