Will Gutenberg laugh last?


It has been taken on faith by many, including your benighted scribe, that the future of book publishing is digital, that the e-book will displace the printed codex as the dominant form of the dominant artifact of modern culture. There have been differing views about how fast the shift will happen (quite a few people believe, mistakenly, that it has already happened), and thoughts have varied as well on the ultimate fate of printed books—whether they’ll disappear entirely or eke out a meager living in a mildewed market niche. But the consensus has been that digitization, having had its way with music and newspapers and magazines and photographs and etc., would in due course have its way with books as well.

In my last post, on the triumph of the tablet over the e-reader, I noted the release of a new Pew study on Americans’ reading habits. The title of the report — “E-book Reading Jumps; Print Book Reading Declines” — nicely encapsulates, and reinforces, the common wisdom. But if you dig deeper into its pages, you find indications that the picture is not as clear-cut as that title suggests. For one thing, the printed book remains, by far, the preferred format for American book readers. Fully 89 percent of them report that they read at least one printed book over the preceding 12 months. Only 30 percent say they read at least one e-book — a percentage that, perhaps tellingly, has increased by only a single point since last February, when the survey was last conducted. The study did find that the percentage of American adults who read e-books increased over the past year, while the percentage that read printed books fell, but the changes are modest. E-book readers rose from 16 percent to 23 percent, while printed book readers declined from 72 percent to 67 percent. (The survey’s margin of error is 2.3 percent.) Yes, there’s an ongoing change in reading habits, but it no longer looks like a sea change.

A lot of other data came out during the course of 2012 that also suggests that (a) the growth in e-book sales has slowed substantially and (b) print sales are holding up pretty well. At a conference in March, Bowker released market research showing that, even though just 20 percent of American web users have actually purchased an e-book, e-book sales growth has already “slowed dramatically” from the explosive levels of the last few years and is now settling down at an “incremental” rate.  There are, reports Bowker, signs of “some level of saturation” in the e-book market, and, strikingly, the heaviest buyers of e-books are now buying more, not fewer, printed books. The Association of American Publishers recently reported that annual growth in adult e-book sales dropped to 34 percent during the first half of 2012, a sharp falloff from the triple digit gains of the previous few years. As of August, e-book sales represented 21 percent of total sales of adult trade books. While e-book sales seem to be eating away at mass-market paperback sales, which have been falling at around a 20 percent annual clip, hardcover sales appear to be holding steady, increasing at about a 2 percent annual rate.

Big publishers have also been reporting a sharp slowdown in e-book sales growth, with a Macmillan representative saying last month that “our e-book business has been softer of late, particularly for the last few weeks, even as the number of reading devices continues to grow.” It’s hardly a surprise that the growth rate of e-books is dropping as the sales base expands — indeed, it’s inevitable — but the recent decline seems considerably more abrupt than expected.

Children’s e-books were growing at a strong 250 percent clip early last year (from a much lower base), but printed children’s books were also showing strong growth, with hardcover sales rising at an annual rate of nearly 40 percent. In fact, the total sales growth of printed children’s books exceeded that of electronic copies. Meanwhile, printed books showed strong sales over the holidays, with unit sales in the U.S. up 5 percent over 2011 levels. In the U.K., sales of printed books reached their highest level in three years during the week before Christmas. Combine all these numbers with the fact that sales of dedicated e-readers are falling sharply, and suddenly it seems possible that reports of the death of the codex may have been exaggerated.

So why might e-books fall short of expectations? Here are some possibilities:

1. We may be discovering that e-books are well suited to some types of books (like genre fiction)  but not well suited to other types (like nonfiction and literary fiction) and are well suited to certain reading situations (plane trips) but less well suited to others (lying on the couch at home). The e-book may turn out to be more a complement to the printed book, as audiobooks have long been, rather than an outright substitute.

2. The early adopters, who tend also to be the enthusiastic adopters, have already made their move to e-books. Further converts will be harder to come by, particularly given the fact that 59 percent of American book readers say they have “no interest” in e-books, according to the Bowker report.

3. The advantages of printed books have been underrated, while the advantages of e-books have been overrated.

4. The early buyers of e-readers quickly filled them with lots of books, most of which have not been read. The motivation to buy more e-books may be dissipating as a result. Novelty fades.

5. The shift from e-readers to tablets is putting a damper on e-book sales. With dedicated readers, pretty much the only thing you can do is buy and read books. With tablets, you have a whole lot of other options. (To put it another way: On an e-reader, the e-reading app is always running. On a tablet, it isn’t.)

6. E-book prices have not fallen the way many expected. There’s not a big price difference between an e-book and a paperback. (It’s possible, suggests one industry analyst, that Amazon is seeing a plateau in e-book sales and so is less motivated to take a loss on them for strategic reasons.)

None of this means that, in the end, e-books won’t come to dominate book sales. My own sense is that they probably will. But, as we enter 2013, I’m considerably less confident in that prediction than I was a few years back, when, in the wake of the initial Kindle surge, e-book sales were growing at 200 or 300 percent annually. At the very least, it seems like the transition from print to electronic will take a lot longer than people expected. Don’t close that Gutenberg parenthesis just yet.

UPDATE: A new version of this post was published as an article in the January 5 edition of the Wall Street Journal with the headline “Don’t Burn Your Books — Print Is Here to Stay.” (The headline writer is a bit more definitive in his assessment than I am, but that’s not unusual.)


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58 Responses to Will Gutenberg laugh last?

  1. All good points. I’m definitely in the camp that still prefers print books, for a variety of technical and commercial reasons. I’m rather happy that a large proportion of readers also seems unwilling to make the switch. The obstacles to making tablet computers into true replacements for print codices are probably not insurmountable, but there won’t be a serious attempt at overcoming them until e-book sales stagnate.

  2. Paper-and-binding books may also have cognitive advantages over electronic reading devices, some of which I spell out here.

  3. dave

    a book – its interactive, its tactile, it looks good, it goes in your pocket, it can be used for a second or for days and you dont need a nuclear powerstation to recharge it, you can read it anywhere, anytime, on a plane on the loo and in the sea. A book doesnt have a half life or contain rare earth metals, it opens your mind to a million new dimensions and best of all – you can give it to a mate when your finished with it with the recommendation – read this! it will change your life!!! You cant do that with a fecking downloaded copy of 50 Shades of Grey!

  4. Very interesting points, although I suspect that you have your book “types” the wrong way around – genre fiction is a cheap virtually disposable commodity in paperback, while ease of searching makes the e-book far more useful for non-fiction and literary fiction, both of which are far more likely to require cross-referencing.

  5. Dan — You’d think so but I found that browsing and searching e-books on a small portable device is much more cumbersome than with a print book, unless you just want an exact word match that the Find function can handle. “Working” with electronic books is reasonably possible only on my fast desktop machine with its big monitor, multiple windows, precise mouse, etc.

  6. Lionel Birnie

    There’s not a big price difference between ebooks and paperbacks for one simple reason.

    Ebooks are subject to VAT. Physical books are not. Unless you are printing a tiny number of books and charging a very low price, it is highly unlikely that the printing costs per unit exceeds 20% of the cover price.

    Therefore, in a lot of cases, printed books are cheaper to produce and sell than ebooks.

    Until the Government decides books should not be VAT exempt, printed books will survive. The final nail in the coffin will be to apply VAT.

    This point seems to be missed by so many industry analysts but is absolutely critical to the health of the industry, particularly small, independent publishers.

  7. Lionel Birnie

    I perhaps should have added, I’m referring to the UK. I’d be interested to know what the situation is in the US and whether it has any bearing.

  8. Nick

    Dan, All the statistics I’ve seen to date indicate that e-book sales are dominated by fiction and in particular genre fiction.

    Lionel, Printed and electronic books are treated the same, taxwise, in US.

  9. Mark Wilson

    A nice article. Thanks.

    I suspect that we’ll see steady, but relatively modest, increases in e-book consumption over the next few years as more books (genres) are converted into better formats with better software on better, cheaper machines (reader or tablet). I also think that, as the generation born into the digital world – 21st C. babies – comes of age, that steady, modest gain in e-book usage will bump upwards again. That generation will largely decide the fate of the physical book, to my way of thinking. Your comment that e-books, “…may turn out to be more a complement to the printed book…” may be prescient.

    I’d also like to add a note to dave’s homage to the physical book in his earlier comment: many people (like me) define themselves, in part, by the presence of books everywhere in their lives. Books line my walls, live in my vehicle and backpack, and go everywhere with me. At least in my home, the dedication of so much of my personal space to books cannot be replaced by a shelf with an e-reader on it. It’s not at all the same thing. I suspect that there a quite a lot of people like me out there who won’t be redecorating and removing all of their beloved books any time soon.

  10. To a certain extent, this confirms my own bias (thus rendering it absolutely true). Books I’m likely going to read once are always digital; there’s no used copy cluttering up my shelves or looking for a new home.

    Some books — those I anticipate having legs — are better in print. I won’t experience DRM or format issues down the line, and here comes the biggie: If I really like it, I can give it to a friend or relative.

    (Sub-thought: I wonder if the inability to pass along most ebooks will hurt new authors in the long run, resulting in a “authorial consolidation” similar to the corporate consolidation we’re seeing in so many industries.)

    That said, I have noticed that a book is more likely to be read if it’s in digital form. My “to-read” list is in the 40+ range, and most of the titles that seem stuck there are piled up on the nightstand.

    There is something to be said for the convenience of reading on a smartphone or tablet, if not the quality of the experience.

  11. Barbara

    I suspect that “inability to pass along most ebooks” is also a factor in reading choices. A lot of readers are given books by a friend or a family member. These come with the highest endorsement, as endorsements go. (That is, more reading choices are triggered by a recommendation from someone the reader knows rather than through book reviews, blurbs, or discovery in a bookstore or library.)

    I suspect there will always be a tilt in numbers of copies (e- or print) toward blockbuster books. When people haven’t developed avid reading patterns, they may not have a lot of friends recommending books, or they may prefer to read something that others are already talking about, and these are books that will be readily available in places like Costco. And there’s the brand authors, who publish books so similar it’s like eating at a fast-food restaurant: it doesn’t matter where you are, you know exactly what you’re getting, which (if you read infrequently) may be reassuring.

    The avid readers I know are likely to have an ereader and perhaps also a tablet, but they still end up buying or borrowing a lot of printed books, using the e-versions mainly when traveling or if it’s hard to get a book in print.

    Finally, though it would seem likely that digital books are well suited to non-fiction and other books that are studied rather than gulped, it has never proven to be true. Since the days of Rocketbooks, linear long-form fiction has been preferred by readers for devices, and a majority of college students year after year have preferred printed textbooks to e-books, partly because of license terms, but largely because they find them awkward to navigate. There’s something about the physical place on a page and within a block of pages that is more easily remembered and retrieved than search tools in digital texts allow. So far, too, students find it easier to mark up a paper text than a digital one. Until the digital affordances outweigh those of paper texts, they won’t be massively preferred.

    For the researcher, it’s clear that having a text in both print and digital format is ideal. Unfortunately, it’s rarely an affordable option.

  12. Nick

    For the researcher, it’s clear that having a text in both print and digital format is ideal. Unfortunately, it’s rarely an affordable option.

    I have found that, when it comes to research, printed books are infinitely superior to electronic copies. I find it useful to surround myself with lots of books, open to various pages, with other pages marked in various ways. You can’t do that with text on screens. But I’ve also found that you don’t need to have a digital copy to get the searchability benefits of a digital copy. If I want to search a book, I go to Google Books or to Amazon’s Search Inside function, and I search it there, and then I open my paper copy to the matching spot. Online book searching tools can be used with print books as well as digital ones. There are instances when a book can’t be searched online, but I’ve found them to be pretty rare.

  13. Gordon Divitt

    I have been a reader all my life as have my wife. Our previous home had many feet of book shelves and bedside tables were piled high

    Unfortunately we both retired recently (that’s not the unfortunate bit) and bought a smaller home. The most depressing moments of my life now include multiple trips to the dump to toss hundreds of pounds (weight) of hardcover books into containers heading for landfill.

    Turns out libraries only want pristine recently published stuff – I am a big reader of history and biography and argued to my wits end that these are as valid as the day they were published.

    Charities will take some but criteria close to libraries

    Used book stores are largely non existent

    Soft cover books can be recycled

    Hard cover book are waste

    I now have an iPad and will probably never buy another paper book, or magazine, and I find I am able to read wherever and whatever I want with no regrets and secure in the knowledge I will never again stand next to a dumpster and throw expensive and previously cherished companions into oblivion.

    For the record I did keep all of my science fiction books as that would have been worse than kicking my kids out of the house. I’ll probably never read them again but I know their safe for my lifetime.

  14. There is nothing better than holding and reading a “real” book in your hand.
    I will not give up real books ever.

  15. Raj Karamchedu

    I used to buy Kindle books, but after reading two or three fiction books, and another book on architecture (non-fiction), gave up entirely, because reading ebooks turned into a boring experience. It’s a chore to go from one page to another. It felt so constrained that I don’t have the other pages in my peripheral view. And as it seems for Nick, books for me are visual prompters; as a habit I keep them at various places in my house so they are visible and remind me to get to some aspect related to them. I am beginning to think ebooks are a good way to backup the content in the libraries, that’s about it.


  16. I think it’s important to look not just at e-book prices, but also e-reader prices. There’s a large set of people who read who are not minded to pay £70 for a reader or $70, because they normally buy paperbacks and so an e-reader is the cost of around 10 books or more. And that might be a significant (6 months, a year?) length of reading time for them, if they are a casual reader.

    The costs of an e-reader are much easier to justify if you buy hardbacks, the paperback discount isn’t great. Throw in that just like every other financial calculation, people often don’t go for the money saving option if it means an up-front investment. And as others have observed, once people are spending they are often inclined to go to a tablet, but there’s less evidence that they see it as a reading device.

    So at some level I think things will change when or if e-readers become much less expensive – say half the current price. But I don’t know how long that would take to happen.

    I’m extra sensitive to this because my Kindle had an accident before Christmas.

    E-readers have opened up some kind of new space in “cheap books.” In non-fiction this is the “Kindle Single” which is yet to really take off, but I think has real potential. In the fiction side though I think it’s already clear that a lot of people are happy to gamble on cheap fiction – and personally I’ve read more “brain candy” since I bought the e-reader. I wouldn’t have bought a Jack Reacher paperback for £7.99 after hearing about the movie, but it was less commitment to buy it on sale in the Kindle store for £1.99. However, I only have so much reading time, so if you’ve sold me a £1.99 quick hit, then I’m not reading Nate Silver’s latest tome – which would have made more money. So I’m not sure how well all this works for the publishing industry.

  17. Henrik

    You cannot build a collection on a format that is likely to be rendered obsolete in a decade or less, as goes for any digital format. For that fact alone, anyone who is serious about books needs printed versions for his library. The same argument goes for ITunes vs. LPs.
    The eReader is the reading technology of the throw-away culture which may be why people seem to less enthusiastic about it. However, I think the ebook has a future in textbooks, guides, instruction manuals and similar genres of books that you would discard when you’re done with them.

  18. Clay Shirky


    I’d like to add another item to your list: maybe books won’t survive the transition to digital devices, any more than scrolls survived the transition to movable type. (Scrolls and codices existed side-by-side when copies were produced by hand, but not when the latter came to be produced mechanically.)

    We’ve had shared digital text for half a century now, dated from PLATO, and seen enormous experimentation in text formats, up to a multi-lingual encyclopedia with billions of words and down to real-time text bursts of 140 characters or less. Not once in that half century has anyone successfully invented anything that feels like the digital version of a book. Books online, whether in a Kindle or Google Books, are always (cue McLuhan) the old medium populating the new.

    The online text formats that work don’t work like books: reference works that go online behave more like databases; the textbooks that go online behave more like looseleaf binders than bound volumes; blogs are more like journals, in all senses of that word, than books. Meanwhile, the stuff that tries to work like books mostly doesn’t work: every work of ‘wiki-fiction’ ever created is junk; NaNoWriMo treats book-length writing like a trip to the gym; blog-to-book deals are mostly novelty acts.

    As an frequent user of e-books (and an enthusiastic co-signer of the ‘better for non-fiction than genre’ observations above) I’m struck by how current e-book formats are a terrible hybrid of digital and physical. I can’t edit inline or share copies easily, I can’t get just one chapter if that’s all I want, and the price is more reflective of existing publishers business models than of the actual unit costs of digital distribution of tiny gobs of text.

    This recapitulates our mid-last-decade discussion about music, where albums shrank in salience after Napster, and the net-native musical units became the song, the playlist, and the stream. Similarly, the book, which half a millenium of rehearsed reverence have taught us to regard as a semantic unit, may in fact be a production unit: the book is what you get when writers have access to printing presses, just as the album is what you get when musicians have access to LP-pressing machines. Take away the press, and what looked like an internal logic of thought may turn out to be a constraint of the medium.

    If this is right, then the twilight of the printed book will proceed on a schedule disconnected to the growth or stagnation of e-books — what the internet portends is not the end of the paper container of the book, but rather the way paper organized our assumptions about writing altogether.

  19. Gordon Divitt

    Reviewing some the comments here there seems to be an underlying theme that people resent spending a significant amount of money and all they get is the ability to read the words.

    There is definitely a pride of ownership and nothing nicer looking than a well stocked book shelf. I always enjoy perusing people’s inventory when the opportunity strikes as it can give you insights into the person that can be difficult to gain in other ways.

    The problem with that as the reason to buy physical books will, as I posted earlier, disappear as the boomers retire, downsize and eventually shuffle off to that great library in the sky. My three sons, aged 23 to 32, read but never buy anything they can’t download and I see that as the driving force behind the ultimate dominance of ebooks in all but special formats e.g. Coffee table.

    I frequently will read an interesting book review on one of the services I get delivered electronically; flip over to Amazon and, if I like what I see, buy and have it installed on my iPad within one minute. I can do this when I’m in bed at night and finish what I was reading and need something new.

    Without a doubt costs will have to come down for both readers and books but that will inevitably happened given some open competition. What will disappear are dedicated eReaders in favour of general purpose tablets.

  20. Dan

    For me personally, it’s #1 and #3.

    avid reader, e-reader owner, library lover

    There are some non-fiction book that I must own a copy of and usually one of the reasons is for possible lending out. For that purpose, an e-book won’t do, not yet anyways.

  21. Dan

    As for fiction, the e-reader will do just fine.

  22. Wendy

    Count me as a member of the set who prefers my non-fiction in eBook format – probably because I need to read technical books to keep up-to-date for my work. I’ve invested small fortunes in prior years in heavy tomes that are obsolete before the ink is dry. eBooks on programming languages generally cost less than their physical counterparts, and it’s much easier to publish and download an update, and there’s much less guilt in “disposing” of an obsolete eBook vs. a 600-page trade paperback that cost me $60-75.

    I, too, have a massive collection of Science Fiction hardbacks and paperbacks that take up significant space in my home. I also have a lot of other non-technical nonfiction in physical form. Large-format art books, classic literature, and a small part of my deceased mother’s research library that I couldn’t bear to part with.

    I do read fiction on my tablet as well. I find, when reading in bed, the self-illuminated surface bothers my spouse less and I don’t have to deal with a “book light” or other contrivance. I will miss the demise of physical books, if that is to happen. The one large downside of owning a large-ish library is when it’s time to move.

  23. Nick


    Yes and no. Plenty of written works that once existed, by necessity, in the form of books are now morphing into new forms online. These tend to be reference works, manuals, and other things that benefit from links and from continual updating. That’s great. But these things tend to be sidelines to the mainstream trade publishing business.

    The mainstay of book publishing is the extended narrative, either fictional or factual and almost always shaped by a single authorial consciousness and expressed in a single authorial voice. It is, in other words, a work of art. As you note, attempts to reinvent the narrative of the book in new hypermedia forms have been dismal failures. There’s a simple reason: they dispense with the art, which turns out to be the essence of the book’s value. Your desire to see cultural artifacts as mere technological artifacts, as “production units,” leads you to jump to the conclusion that because the narrative art of the book is resistant to digital re-formation, the narrative art is doomed to obsolescence. I think human beings are stranger and more interesting than you seem to believe. They enjoy, even love, the aesthetic experience of reading a well-crafted book. I don’t see any reason to assume they’ll abandon the object of that love just because it’s better suited to the form of a book than the form of a website/app/wiki. Photography didn’t kill off painting or drawing. And contrary to your misapprehension, the MP3 has not killed off the album. A record 100 million digital albums were purchased in 2011, and that number increased by another 15 percent in 2012, while individual track sales grew just 6 percent. People like albums; deal with it. Reducing aesthetic choices to “rehearsed reverence” is a form of nihilism.

    One last example: cookbooks. Recipes are flourishing online, and by many practical measures an online recipe is superior to one printed on a page. And yet printed cookbook sales are flourishing. Human beings can’t be reduced to utilitarian equations. Thank god.


  24. Personally I prefer reading from printed books, although I have to admit I have purchased an e-book reader myself. Mainly due to the fact that I can download and read new books almost at will and is very handy for holidays.

  25. Dan

    I long ago learned that most popular books eventually end up as paperbacks costing a fraction of what hardbacks cost, and if you are patient most of what you want to read will be available at low prices. So every times I read or hear someone going on about the glories of “real” books — their feel, their heft in the hand, even their smell — I think “Yeah, but if I felt that way I might have read maybe a quarter as many books in my life as I actually did read in cheap paperback editions. I have to pay for these things, you know.” E-books are just an extension of the same principle. In addition to e-books I have purchased, I have a few hundred free books on my Kindle. Some I read 20 or 30 years ago and might want to read again, ago, some I missed in the past because I couldn’t afford every book I wanted to read, some I will probably never read but I just like the idea of being able to carry around an entire library in my luggage so that I might have a wide selection of titles to browse through when I find myself far from home. Who knows, maybe the Egyptian Book of the Dead will tickle my fancy some night. But recently my mail order dead tree book club had a clearance sale and I scored 8 books for $28, a much cheaper price than their e-book equivalents. So I am being reminded what a pain in the butt real books can be, especially when reading a heavy volume in bed using a less than perfect reading light. But I’m still in the maximum reads for minimum bucks mode, so the electronic reader will remain my medium of choice.
    Don’t be fooled by the statistic that “dedicated” e-reader sales are falling off. If you can have one gizmo that handles books, movies, TV, music, games, etc., why own a bunch?

  26. Gordon Divitt


    I too love cook books but when I have to find what we’re going to have for dinner it is easier to put a couple of ingredients you have into a search and see what recipes are on offer

    The cook book is, for me, a special form of non-fiction that I use as reference material when I have to plan a dinner party or something else special and I trawl through a whole bunch to get inspiration as much as recipes.

    All of the concerns around cost, sharing, obsolescence of formats etc are transient issues of oxen being gored and given a little time, and pressure from the consumer, will be resolved.

    Just as some folks prefer live theatre to the movies, so it will be with literature formats. Both forms will survive because each has a unique advantage but my guess is the usage will be skewed in favour of digital just as it is for movies

  27. Colin

    I think #6 is the biggest reason — there is hardly any difference between the price of new books and the Kindle version — maybe about $2. And that’s for new books — I can typically get used ones from amazon at a substantial discount (unless it is a new release). Furthermore, when I am done reading a paper book I can then sell it online, thus recouping some of my initial cost. Loaning books out is also easier with paper versions.

    I like my Kindle, but won’t use it for much more than cheap ebooks such as Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad or ebook only titles such as The Great Stagnation until the prices come down. If I could get an ebook for $5-8, I’d buy them by the bushel. Until then, forget about it.

  28. Kimberle

    Number 4 and 6 are exactly why i have not bought more than 10 ebooks in 2012. When i first received my Kindle Fire, i downloaded a ton of free ebooks and bought a bunch of them that were $3 or less. i have read less than half. And i have gone on Amazon looking to buy an ebook and bought the used mass market which was cheaper (even with shipping!) than the ebook. plus i work at library so i can donate my paperback after i am finished reading it, right now you can buy an ebook and money will be donated to the library’s digital library but you cannot give the library the ebook or buy the ebook for the library to add to its collection (ebooks and libraries whole other topic). i don’t mind buying ebooks but when i am reading a series that has 12 or more titles and they each cost $5-8 … i don’t want to own them i just want to read them. IMO ebooks are a bit of a waste of money for avid readers. there are people who love to read and always buy their books; a lot of them donate them to the library afterwards (some you can’t even tell they read it!)

    oh and number 3- i can read most books in a day, my Fire does not last 12 hrs. and if i play music on the fire while i am reading oh it shuts down even faster. i would have never bought a Kindle Fire for myself; it was a gift. Being an avid library user and a voracious fiction reader, i like my books free or close to free (used and less than $3). i rarely buy books that costs more, unless it’s part of a series and the library does not own it or it’s a nonfiction book i need. I love to highlight my nonfiction books. these books are teaching me something and i will go back to them and use them as references. highlighting in my Fire is difficult and annoys me. and searching in a book sigh… so much easier to flip the pages and recognize a chart or a chapter heading and find the passage you are looking for. i mean the dictionary took about a minute to find the word i needed; that’s about 30 seconds slower that it takes me to flip through my pbk dictionary. (i was reading a magazine article from an app not an ebook so i couldn’t use the press and hold dictionary function)

    i think the switch to ebooks from print books will probably take as long as the switch MP3 to CD is taking or DVD to Blu-ray.

  29. Kathy

    I have owned a Nook Color for a year now. At first I was so excited about the instant gratification of finding a book I wanted on B&N and then “Presto” I’m reading it in five minutes. What is really bothering me most right now is that I often forget the name of the book I’m reading as well as the author. When a “real” book is in my hands I lay it here and there, pick it up and put it down, thumb through it, etc. Each of these actions reminds me of the name of the book and the author. I wish the name of the book and the author appeared at the top of each page in my e-reader. Also, I cannot afford much longer to buy ebooks for $12.99 when I can wait a little while and get a used copy from Amazon for way, way less.

  30. Clay Shirky


    Let me apologize in advance for the length of this comment; as usual your remarks defy a simple reply.

    I’ll make a case here for the displacement of the artistic forms of the book (principally the novel, of course) as the shift to online reading continues, working by analogy first with the album and then the relationship between photography and painting.

    You say “People like albums; deal with it.” I wouldn’t say otherwise, because any claim that people don’t would be trivially falsified by the existence of people who do, no matter how few. So I’ll make this claim instead: the album is no longer the central (or even a terribly important) unit in the consumption of popular music, in contrast to its position in the era of CDs.

    You note the record 103M digital albums sold in 2011. This is the numerator. The denominator — total music sales — is 1.37 billion, measured as songs plus albums. In 2011, when someone decided to pay for digital music, they were deciding to buy a song 93% of the time, with albums making up the remaining 7%.

    This is a nearly total reversal of the CD-dominated era, where where over 90% of music sales were album sales, largely because the recording industry could never figure out how to get album-scale margins from digital singles and CD “mix tapes”, despite listener demand.

    Furthermore, many bestselling “albums” are synthetic collections of tracks never created to be listened to together — Big Beethoven Box, Abba Gold, Pure 80s: #1s. Whatever you want to say about the possibilities of the album as a cohesive unit of expression, Now That’s What I Call Music Vol. 43_ doesn’t fit the model.

    Then there’s Adele. As everyone writing about music last year noted, Adele was the breakout seller of digital albums in 2011, with 21 at the head of the pack, at 1.8 million sold. Unlike the case you made for Exile On Main Street, 21 isn’t a complete work of musical thought. It is a bundle of popular songs, sold at a discount. Adele also sold 5.8M digital copies of the song “Rolling In The Deep”. The most popular song on the most popular album outsold that very album by 322%. People may like albums, but they don’t like them very much anymore.

    To put this in historical perspective, overall album sales in 2011 were 4 million higher than in 2010, but 350 million lower than in 2001. Albums have achieved a state something like vinyl, so widely abandoned that they can now see high growth on a low base.

    And this is just digital sales. Digital consumption has been worse — far worse — for the album format. The big music news in 2011 was not digital album sales, or even total digital sales. It was Pandora and Spotify, services designed to dismember albums (as the iPod also does, of course.) Contrast these with CD players, which enforced linear playback, providing only the >> control as a nod to user preference for something approaching random access.

    The album has gone from the dominant unit of production to become a fraction of what gets bought, with many of the most popular being soundtracks and Greatest Hits collections. And albums as a unit of what gets listened to — all the songs in order, no shuffle or skip — is a fraction of that fraction. The album hasn’t been replaced, but it has been fairly decisively displaced.

    This observation is general; talk of replacement rarely describes how shifts in media work. To your point about photography not replacing painting, I’d agree — “Ceci tuera cela” is too simplistic a frame. I’d also say, though, that when you look at the two media through the lens of displacement, the question looks quite different. If you randomly picked a person looking at an image right now, the chance that that person would be looking at a photograph is within epsilon of 100%. Facebook sees 300 million photos uploaded a day; the photographic corpus of Instagram plus Flickr tops 10 billion; to a first approximation, all image-making techniques have been displaced by photography since it went digital.

    Despite this, painting has created a cultural space for itself where the product is very highly regarded, and its best practitioners well rewarded, but, as Kevin Kelly has pointed out, this is also true of calligraphers and sword-makers, some of whom are still working today. The ability to get hand-lettered wedding invitations doesn’t lead me to conclude that the inkwell has held its own against movable type. Calligraphy has been more decisively displaced as a medium than painting (and than the album), but less displaced than, say, vaudeville or cycloramas.

    So proposing a spectrum of displacement as the interesting question, rather than “Replacement: Y or N?”, I’ll re-state my original observation. I think, as I take you to do as well, that print will decline over the next generation. Already the presses have stopped for phone books and encyclopedias, are stopping for textbooks and newspapers, and will increasingly stop for books of all kinds. And I think as that happens, the experience of reading books will be displaced by other experiences.

    I also agree that the heart of what people are arguing about when we argue about reading is what happens to “the extended narrative, either fictional or factual and almost always shaped by a single authorial consciousness and expressed in a single authorial voice.” That’s an elegant formulation that I’m happy to adopt without caveat. (Similarly, I don’t believe in ‘narrative obsolescence’ — on the contrary, I think that stories, unlike books, are a fundamental unit of human thought, which is to say that in most cultures we know of, there were no books, but there were stories.)

    What I do believe is that books, and in particular novels, have their form pretty decisively wrapped up in the affordances and limitations of print, from their length of ~50K-500K words, to the consistent use of prose, to the idea of delivering the whole bolus of text at once. I also don’t think that, given the native grain of the internet, those affordances and limitations are transferrable wholesale. (This is why I don’t think an 8% uptick in cookbook sales during a food craze constitutes much of a ringing endorsement for either print as a platform or the novel as a form.)

    Narrative and the authorial voice will survive, of course — this blog wouldn’t work if those interests weren’t transferrable — but the surprisingly strong interest in essays, alongside the books’ lack of native support from the medium, makes me conclude that this preference for long-form reading owes more to Montaigne than Defoe.

    If I’m right about this, the fate of the printed book will have less to do with competition from ebooks (at least in their ‘digital copy of print’ versions) than from competition with Longreads and New Inquiry for the time and attention of the reader of extended narratives.

    I don’t think this makes me a nihilist. I think it makes me a McLuhanite, or an (Elizabeth) Eisensteinist, or a (Benedict) Andersonian, which is to say someone who thinks that forms of aesthetic expression co-evolve with their modes of production, and often don’t survive large-scale reconfiguration of those modes. (You will recognize this argument as similar to your own, from Big Switch, albeit applied to cultural, rather than economic, organization where, curiously, you seemed quite convinced that utilitarian calculations wer pretty ineluctable drivers of change.)

    The only way this would be nihilistic is if I believed, as I think you do, that the era of the book represented some sort of global maximum, against which any change is certain to be measured as loss. This is precisely what I don’t believe.

    I am instead quite cheerful about the ongoing destruction of pre-digital patterns of life, because I think something better will come from it, as happened previously, in my view, with print, the telegraph, and the telephone. If I’m wrong, of course, then my arguments are helping usher in a new Dark Ages, a Bosch nightmare populated by Advice Animals with a soundtrack of Gangnam Style on endless loop, but so far, I’m liking my chances.

    I have several reasons for thinking that the current round of destruction is clearing the decks for something better, but the main one is that historically, media that increase the amount of arguing people do has been a long-term positive for society, even at the cost of short-term destruction of familiar patterns, and the disorientation of the people comfortable with those patterns. I think we’ll get extended narrative online — I just doubt the format of most of those narratives will look enough like a book to merit the name.

  31. Paul

    I have several ebook readers (Kindle Paperwhite, Nook HD, iPad HD4), and they have more-or-less replaced printed books in my world. I read far more than I used to, for I have the simple convenience of reading when I want. If I see a good review, I can zip straight to the book and if anything, get a sample for free. Samples let you browse books at your convenience as well.

    Battery life on something like a Paperwhite is good enough to let you forget about it, and is durable enough to be read in any reasonable environment, in any light. Printed books do not have that convenience, nor that durability while you actually are reading them.

    I do not think printed books are going away though, anymore than cinemas disappeared when TV came along, or live theater disappeared when cinemas came along.

    Printed books I believe will be the cinematic “business channel” if you will, but in reverse. Instead of flagship movies getting made for theaters and distributed in endless electric copies for homes, it will be truly popular or acclaimed works rising out the foam of ebook noise being anointed with printed editions – for those will be the books people want a permanent artifact for.

    Reason I believe this is one simple, fundamental advantage of ebook media and distribution: No middle man between reader and writer. No publisher anointing who gets exposure to readers and who does not, the endless agents, lawyers, rejection letters…all gone for the ebook author. No matter how bad it is, readers will judge merits of the writer. And for publishers, picking the winners will become much easier on where to invest killing a few thousand trees to make physical books people actually want. That is profound I think, and you are starting to see that manifestation today.

    And what do you get minus the Gatekeepers? Fifty Shades is an example of readers choosing their drivel, an unfortunate example of readers unfettered in their choices. Yet the miserable Twilight series that spawned Fifty Shades is an example of publishers anointing equivalent drivel. The quality does not get better between the two, just the editors and spell-check.

  32. Henrik

    I think the price aspect (hardbacks vs. paperbacks vs. ebooks) is a bit overrated since most of us can afford far more books than we have time to read. Does it really matter whether a book costs 10 or 20 dollars (or euros) when it takes weeks to read it?
    It is the physical reading experience itself and the possible additional functionalities which will make or break the ebook.

  33. Gordon Divitt

    Henrik I suspect there is actually price resistance because of the non physical nature of the purchase . If you are going to spend 50% of your weekly food budget on something it better be something you really want and given there is nothing tangible to show it gives one pause.

    I am a Scot so may not be the least biased example but I do have an internal “too expensive” point which is significantly lower for a downloaded book than it was when I routinely bought hard cover books. I find myself going to the library website looking for the book – especially if it is on a subject I am only peripherally interested in. Unfortunately the text is often not available.

    Reading online encourages lateral reading as it is so easy to follow a reference and locate additional source – it’s just not worth a lot of money to me.

    I used to get a sense of well being being in my ‘library’ but after my retirement that is a very expensive decorating choice. My inclination is to read more, and more widely, but availability of low cost solutions need to emerge. For instance I would pay for a two week access to a book.

  34. Caleb

    E-Books don’t smell like paper. That is reason enough for me to never buy one.

  35. Nick


    Yes, people like songs even more than they like albums. They always have. (Radio long dominated listening and was always song-based; far more people listened to the Doors’ song “Light My Fire” in 1967 than listened to the very good album of which it was part.) And you’re absolutely right that, by making it possible, for the first time, for people to buy every song on an album individually, the net has radically changed the music market and people’s buying habits. At the same time, the album remains a valued and resilient form for pop music. Album sales are down sharply from their 80s/90s peaks (when sales were distorted by the introduction of the CD and a wave of vinyl replacement purchases), but they have now stabilized at their early 70s levels, which, arguably, was the end of the 66-72 high point of the album as art. And if we accept that a lot of albums are downloaded for free (and hence don’t enter the sales statistics), then we can assume that album “sales” are now higher than they were at the height of the album’s cultural importance. Moreover, if we take into account the fact that the average album includes about 12 songs, then it becomes clear that far more songs are still purchased as parts of albums than individually (even though unit sales of tracks are higher than unit sales of the track bundles we call albums). Even on streaming services, albums continue to be a popular form for listening (and sharing). Mumford & Sons’ latest album was streamed more than 8 million times on Spotify during the first week of its release. It’s also worth noting that even though people buy a lot of tracks, they’re almost all “album tracks” — ie, musicians continue to work in the form of the album.

    Moreover, albums continue to be, contrary to your contention, central to the cultural discussion of popular music. People await their arrival, people listen to them, people talk about them, and reviews and essays center on them, even in post-Napster publications like Pitchfork and PopMatters and, yes, New Inquiry. The album as cultural marker has hardly lost its currency. (In fact, compared to the pop-cultural dominance of the single in the “Top 40″ days of the 60s/70s, the cultural salience of the album may have grown.) You point out that (a) a lot of albums aren’t very good and have a lot of filler, (b) greatest hits collections and other compilations represent a lot of album sales, and (c) even when people buy entire albums, they often pick and choose individual tracks to listen to. Correct, correct, and correct. But it was ever thus. All those things were as true in, say, 1975 as they are today.

    Where I take issue with you is your attempt to dismiss the album as a mere historical accident, which has no real value beyond being a technological “production unit.” Even if the LP had originated as a purely technological event (which it did not), human beings, as both creators and listeners, turned it into an artistic form in and of itself. Musicians determined what the LP “container” became every bit as much as the container determined what they produced. As an artistic form, the album had, and continues to have, value, separate from and sometimes greater than the combined value of the individual tracks. Yes, the album is subject to the 99%-is-shit rule, but who cares? When any form of popular expression rises to the level of art, the audience for the art is always a small fraction of the audience for the pop. One way to look at recent trends in popular music is to say that digital distribution has freed the casual pop listener to do precisely what she/he has always wanted to do and really has always done: listen to popular songs. That’s great. But I would guess that the number of passionate pop fans, who listen to music for aesthetic satisfaction as well as entertainment, may not have dropped as much as you assume — and those people still listen to a lot of albums.

    We are in complete accord that “forms of aesthetic [and other] expression co-evolve with their modes of production.” That can bring great new forms of expression. It can also diminish or destroy valuable older forms of expression, for economic reasons, for behavioral reasons, for various other reasons. Where nihilism enters the picture is when you say, sneeringly, that although “half a millenium of rehearsed reverence have taught us to regard [the book] as a semantic unit, [it] may in fact be a production unit: the book is what you get when writers have access to printing presses, just as the album is what you get when musicians have access to LP-pressing machines.” People’s love of books in general and serious novels and poetry in particular is not just a numb act of “rehearsed reverence” (a phrase that is incredibly insulting and demeaning) to an accidental production unit. Like the LP (but more so), the book, a creation of human beings, turned out not only to be a terrific container for distributing speech and then writing; it also, through an intertwined, mutually reinforcing, and unique combination of the mode of reading it encouraged (deep, attentive, immersive) and the modes of expression it inspired (deep, thoughtful, eloquent, emotionally resonant, experimental), actually heightened the potential of human expression, experience, and life. Let me say that again: the book heightened the potential of human expression, experience, and life.

    I’m certainly not suggesting that uniquely valuable forms of media, or the modes of thinking or expression that they promote, are immune to destruction or alteration by historical forces, particularly ones driven by utilitarian concerns. But if such a medium is lost or diminished by technological or economic change, we shouldn’t simply say “who cares; other shit will come along” — the techno-nihilistic-philistine view — we should confront the fact that the form and the experience it produced are NOT going to be perfectly replaced by other stuff. If you see every form of expression as a mere “production unit,” then of course every form of expression becomes disposable. If you see the persistence of people’s love for the literary novel or the well-wrought album as mere “rehearsed reverence” (rather than thoughtful, meaningful choice), then of course you’ll find it hard to see the potential for loss in progress. But that’s so blinkered. I have no idea whether the literary novel or nonfiction narrative or poem represents a “global maximum” — whatever that means — but I will argue that each of those things is irreplaceable. Some things — emphasis on “things” — are actually worthy of respect.

    [I edited this comment, for clarity, on 1/5. -Nick]

  36. George

    How can you say that ebooks are “well suited” for genre fiction but not literary fiction? That does not make sense. That is like saying Compact Discs are well suited for heavy metal but not classical music. But ebooks, like mass-market paperbacks and hardbound books with dust jackets are just containers. I don’t think this is a statement that makes sense, and it almost sounds like fear-mongering to me.

    On the other hand, genre books sell like wildfire as ebooks. The whole “indie revolution” in publishing is centered around genre fiction. Literary fiction, not so much. Is it dying out, and are we on the edge of a new dark age? Or what? I can’t imagine that literary fiction “requires” – what? Hardbound books with dust jackets? Or mass-market paperbacks? I read plenty of classic literature on my Kindle.

    Your comment was interesting to me but I also think it bears either clarifying, or retracting.

  37. Nick


    I’m speculating based on sales trends and formal characteristics. It doesn’t seem surprising to me. Mass-market paperbacks have long been better suited to genre fiction than literary fiction. I think readers generally view genre novels as more disposable than literary novels. I don’t mean that to be insulting to genre novels — many of which are also, of course, literary novels — I just mean that they’re often read as light entertainment. That probably has formal implications.


  38. Meredith Hobbs

    Interesting piece. But figures from Publishers Weekly show a 9 percent decline in sales of “print units” in 2012, which I take to mean books–and a total 16 percent drop in print sales since 2010:

    Interestingly the biggest sales decline, of about 20 percent, was for mass market paperbacks–which could support your theory that people are using e-readers to read genre fiction.

  39. Nick


    That 9% overall drop is bigger than I would have wished for, but it does seem concentrated (as has been the case the last couple of years) in mass-market paperbacks, which I think is where e-books are having their biggest impact. But they’re also reporting a sizable 13% drop in adult nonfiction print; without further data it’s hard to know whether that’s a sign of general weakness in that particular segment or a sign of shifting sales from print to electronic. I’ll be interested to see the figures for some of the other major categories, particularly hardcover fiction, which seemed to be showing some strength earlier in the year.


  40. Beware of statistics. Slowing ebook sales growth is not the same as slowing ebook sales and is guaranteed to happen as ebook sales increase. For example:
    Sell three books instead of one – 2 extra books give 200% growth.

    Sell 2000 books instead of 1000 – 1000 extra books gives 100% growth.

    Sell 55000 books instead of 50000 – 5000 extra books gives 10% growth.

  41. Nick

    Diana, As I wrote in the post: “It’s hardly a surprise that the growth rate of e-books is dropping as the sales base expands — indeed, it’s inevitable — but the recent decline seems considerably more abrupt than expected.”

  42. Pieter

    The investment in e-stuff is just not secure. Considering the price and probability that the asset will be lost (through disparate management systems because every IP provider has his/her own way of providing and locking down their content). Where is your first e-thing that you bought?

    Paper books is a step back and restricts my life (I am moving a lot more and my library of thousands of books is becoming my single biggest management/transport headache). But the cost and inability to manage my e-books makes it hard to invest money in it.

    I really wish the world would take the step forward to address these questions:
    1. E-stuff should cost a fraction of real stuff because it does not include the cost of manufacturing/printing, distribution, resale etc.
    2. Once I buy the rights to something, then I should retain those rights so even if my HD fails, I want to get my stuff back, guaranteed.

  43. Jack Ash

    I have completely stopped buying physical books in the last 2 years because it has started becoming a pain to find place for them at home. Plus whenever I shift my home (I live in a rented house) it’s a pain to dust them, pack them, move them, unpack them, find place again for them and arrange them. Now I read a book if it’s available in the soft on piracy websites (I live in a country where e-books are not sold). Else, I just pass.

    I would like to buy e-books, but they are so damn expensive in my country compared to a physical copy that I can’t buy them (almost 5 to 10x expensive).

    Also I notice that in the US, there is very little price differential between a physical copy and an e-book. With so little price differential, people would prefer physical copy. Because, I am not sure how “safe” our e-books are, how long will they last etc.

    Also, I am loving to read fiction on my 10” table and non-fiction on my 14” ultra-book. I feel the 10” size is a little too small for non-fiction.

  44. I was an early adopter of e-books, an early customer of Fictionwise, but I became disillusioned with them as well as e-music and such.

    The most annoying thing are the artificial borders. It’s counter-intuitive that digital products will have more severe restrictions on who can buy them, but what happens is that I’ve ordered CD’s and print books from the US and UK, but I can’t buy digital music or books in many cases. When Fictionwise was bought by B&N most high profile books became US only, and that killed the store for me.

    The other problem is not owning the book. I was mid-way through Terry Pratchett’s The Last Continent when I lost my e-book reader. It was in Mobipocket format (I bought all my DRM’ed e-books in this format), which meant that I had to enter the PID of the book in the store and then download in order to read it. And that particular book (and a few other Terry Pratchett ones) was no longer available from the publisher in Mobipocket format and removed from the store, so I couldn’t do that.

    Fictionwise is closing down now and I downloaded all my books recently (again, only US customers had books, and not all of them as I understand, transferred to their B&N account), and although some of the secure Mobipocket books I lost were replaced by eReader format books (another dead format), when I asked about the others I was told that the terms of service say that I have to download the book 7 days from when I buy it and there’s no guarantee that I will have access to it later.

    It’s this sort of crap which makes me dislike e-books. I’ve read e-books since then, and even enjoyed them (for example Dinocalyps Now, which I got from that Kickstarter, and read as a PDF on the PC), but even though technically I don’t have a big problem with e-books and I appreciate their advantages, I’m disillusioned.

    Logically I don’t think it’s that bad. I’ve lost and ruined print books, had them fall apart, and it pained me every time. I’ve probably lost more print books than e-books. But it’s the concept that bugs me, the lack of power over my content, that I’m not allowed to buy them, not allowed to lend what I do buy, and that I could lose access to them.

    Frankly I think that things are getting better. I’ve managed to remove DRM from my books, I store them in Dropbox, I have a tablet with apps that can read multiple formats. But the limitations still make e-books feel like they have much lower value than print books, so I’m not going to buy them unless I feel that I get a really good deal.

  45. Nick, it may sharpen your discussion with Clay Shirky to step away from music/albums and look instead towards film and TV. It seems clearer in that arena that the arrival of the short form (many TV shows) did significantly impact the size of the long form industry, but at the same time, movies are still with us as a form and format.

  46. This article and the responses are a very interesting but makes me wonder what all the flurry is about. All but one poster talked about how they read and why an e-reader is better or worse, or suits their reading habits or preferences or not, or both. Since there is no regulation, at least in the U.S., about whether you choose a book book or an e-book, I think this is less of a revolution and more of an option. Use whatever device suits you for whatever you are doing or prefer. Sales will settle into patterns as perception, prices, value, new technology and a whole host of other issues recedes from its initial blast.
    Only one poster didn’t discuss HOW we read but WHAT we read and referred to the industry gate keepers that have traditionally decided what is available to read and what is not. And that, I think, is where the real revolution is. I’m an author of a few of the ‘genre’ or disposable books mentioned here. Trust me – I’m not insulted by the word ‘disposable’ because to dispose of something, one must first have it, meaning, someone bought, and hopefully read, my books which is a huge change from five years ago. Because of e-readers and Amazon’s pursuit of that market, I am able to bypass the gate keepers (agents mostly) and go directly to the public. Certainly there are many books that are not worth publication, some were mentioned above, and many more self-published books will fall into that category as well. Many book books never make it past the initial printing of 3000 but I have sold that many e-books and many more and continue to sell at a brisk pace. Now readers can decide what is worthy of their time rather than an entrenched industry and that is a revolution.

    I’ve blogged about this a few times. Here’s a link:

  47. Alex

    TC/Writer Underground is right mentioning DRM. Until I can pass a book on to someone the way you can with a printed copy I will rarely buy an ebook. Some of the ones I have bought I regret doing so as ebooks because I now want to now pass them on having found them excellent books.

  48. Nick

    A final reply to Clay:

    You write: “This is why I don’t think an 8% uptick in cookbook sales during a food craze constitutes much of a ringing endorsement for either print as a platform or the novel as a form.”

    I don’t know what cookbooks have to do with novels, either, but it struck me that in your response here we see something revealing. I don’t think you’d argue that there is an enormous quantity of diverse cooking-related content available in digital form, much of it very good: professional and amateur recipes, articles and profiles, blogs of incredible variety, e-cookbooks, YouTube cooking videos and lessons, images out the wazoo, restaurant reviews, and much else. And yet cookbook sales go up smartly. You dismiss this out of hand by attributing it to a “food craze.” But wouldn’t it be more interesting to ask yourself why people with a heightened interest in cooking and cuisine (and these tend to be relatively young, web-savvy people with an arsenal of gadgetry), would choose to buy lots of printed cookbooks rather than just satisfying themselves with the wealth of cooking-related content (most of it available without charge) online? Clearly, if what’s available online satisfied all our desires, then no one would bother to buy expensive and heavy cookbooks in printed form. The fact that people do, in the face of all that digital content, choose to buy printed books tells us – doesn’t it? – that there must be some uniquely appealing quality to the printed book that is not replaceable by digital content. Instead of asking, “What’s up with that? What’s the unique appeal of a printed book?” and then digging into that question, you choose to avoid looking at the phenomenon altogether. You dodge the interesting question because you’ve convinced yourself that there’s no inherent and unique value to the form of a physical codex, that it’s merely a fungible production unit, a (grimace) “platform.”

  49. This article and discussion is proof that books, both print and digital, are more than a commodity. I think your readers may be interested in another perspective. http://pamelahegarty.com/2012/09/15/what-yiddish-and-edith-wharton-taught-me-about-the-value-of-print-books/