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.)

58 thoughts on “Will Gutenberg laugh last?

  1. inkling

    A lot of the complaint regarding e-books seems to regard the implementation of software/format. The proprietary nature of ebooks messes up pagination, copy and paste and most of the other useful features of text manipulation on a pc.

    the interface will be an issue as long as these formats limit the software that can manipulate the text, and will depend on the knowledge level of the user.Bbooks are perhaps easy to grasp but at the same time many of us are brought up with them and that alters our percption of ease.

  2. Tone Mendoza

    When you take something simple and make it complicated it can’t help but become all the rage–for little while, anyway.

  3. Joseph Ratliff

    I am not willing, nor do I want to, read longer texts (over 150 pages) on an e-reader of any type (including computer screen). I have a wide library of what might be considered “tomes” (including The Shallows) on my shelf.

    Shorter texts are easier to navigate with an e-reader… and sometimes easier to read… the price per page is usually right as well.

    Many of the people I speak with have similar circumstances… so from my perspective, I don’t see the “container” changing very soon, perhaps more than 10 – 20 years before e-readers and digital become the “normal.”

  4. Chris Rippel

    Dear Fellow Prognosticators,

    Comparing today’s eBooks with print books is like comparing horse and buggies with yesterday’s horseless carriages.

    The first real eBook has yet to be written.

    At this time in its history, eBooks are merely electronic versions of print books. These are proto-eBooks because they don’t take advantage of a computer’s and internet’s real power in creating and telling stories. In the future, real eBooks will be written and tell stories in ways different from today’s print books. Then, print books and the real eBooks will be quite different media, not normally compared.

  5. Richard Mahler

    As long as publishers continue to insist on keeping ebook prices at or above hardbook prices irregardless of the cost of production of the formats, many buyers will opt for a hardback. It is a means of subsidizing traditional books, but nevertheless the choice of formats may well depend more on how the buyer intends to use the “book”, whether portability, quick access, travel and one time use vs. home or office use, permanance, collecting, display or the enjoyment of tactile published objects. I buy ebooks frequently but will still buy a hardback when it is priced equal to or less than the ebook, unless of course my use means the ebook better suits my purposes.

  6. Sprite

    At a recent bookclub meeting I attended, 4 of 5 attendees owned e-readers, and, tellingly, 4 of 4 were resentful of the inability (generally speaking) of being able to share, loan or give ebooks to their friends or family. The resentment won’t die until we get used to the idea that “buying” a digital book gives us only the right to read the text, and that we own nothing physical.

    That’s a sea change and I think that will be a long time coming.

  7. Henrik

    I am surprised to see how few of the comments focus on what will happen to the idea of collecting books, something which is at the very core of the book culture which now may or may not fade away. (Some) printed books possess several kinds of value which ebooks do not: monetary, bibliophile, affectionate, or simply prestige value (“Look what I’ve read!”). As it has always been the privilege of the wealthy to accumulate capital, the conclusion seems obvious: printed books will be luxury and investment objects for the bibliophile, the nerdy, and the wealthy. In contrast, the less affluent will only be able to accumulate as much (intellectual) capital as their minds can hold.

  8. Nick Post author


    “As it has always been the privilege of the wealthy to accumulate capital, the conclusion seems obvious: printed books will be luxury and investment objects for the bibliophile, the nerdy, and the wealthy.”

    Maybe, though the cheapest way to read books, after, of course, library borrowing, is to buy them used. As a glance at Amazon will tell you, used books tend to be much cheaper than e-books, and you can re-sell them, and you don’t have to buy a device to read them or pay for an Internet connection to buy them. E-books are hardly designed for the poor.

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