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. Chris Nahr

    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. 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!

  3. Dan Sumption

    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.

  4. Chris Nahr

    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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. Nick Post author

    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.

  8. 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.

  9. TC/Writer Underground

    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.

  10. 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.

  11. Nick Post author

    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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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.


  14. Indy

    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.

  15. 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.

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

  18. 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.

  19. 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.

  20. Nick Post author


    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.


  21. Steve

    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.

  22. 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?

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