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. 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

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. Nick Post author


    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]

  10. 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.

  11. Nick Post author


    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.


  12. 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.

  13. Nick Post author


    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.


  14. Diana Kimpton

    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.

  15. Nick Post author

    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.”

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

  18. ET3D

    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.

  19. Indy

    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.

  20. Holly Bush

    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:

  21. 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.

  22. Nick Post author

    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.”

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