The ebook equilibrium


Last week, I gave a talk at the Digital Book Conference at Book Expo America (BEA) in New York. Here’s the text of my remarks.

Let me begin with a confession: I used to fear ebooks. You’ll be pleased to hear that I’ve gotten over that.

The change in my own attitude or perception reflects, I sense, some trends that have been unfolding recently in the marketplace. Actually, it would be more accurate to say “some trends that have stopped unfolding.” The big upheaval that followed Amazon’s introduction of the Kindle at the end of 2007 is settling down, and the contours of the post-ebook world are coming into focus. What’s surprising is that those contours don’t seem altogether different from those of the pre-ebook world. Much has changed, but a lot hasn’t.

Just a few years ago, when digital book sales were exploding and print sales slumping, it seemed a given that the ebook would do to the printed book what the MP3 did to the compact disc: obliterate it, or at least marginalize it. We were fated to see, in short order, the ebook become the dominant form of the book. The Gutenberg era would, after nearly half a millennium, come to a close.

I remember back in 2010 seeing an interview with Nicholas Negroponte, the founder of MIT’s Media Lab, in which he predicted, with supreme confidence, that printed books would be dead in five years. By 2015, ebooks would have taken over.

That prediction has turned out to be crazy. It’s safe to say that in 2015 plenty of people will be buying and reading printed books — considerably more than will be buying and reading electronic books. But the prediction didn’t seem entirely outlandish when Negroponte made it. Ebooks were on a tear in 2010. Sales more than tripled during the course of that year, after having already tripled in 2009, and they’d go on to double in 2011. Tripling, tripling, doubling: that’s enormous growth, even when starting from a small base. It was in May of 2011 — almost exactly three years ago — that Amazon announced that Kindle books were outselling print books on its site.

For lovers of the page, like myself, the ebook juggernaut provoked great unease about the future of the printed book — a bulwark of culture seemed to be crumbling. For lovers of the digital, like Negroponte, the same phenomenon provoked great euphoria — a bulwark of culture seemed to be crumbling. The way you see a bulwark depends on which side of it you’re on.

But even back then, there was something that had me scratching my head: the sales reports I was getting on my own books — nonfiction books — didn’t match up with everything I was hearing. There was a disconnect between the hype and the numbers. I had definitely seen a sizable bump in digital sales, but it was far from a takeover. For every ebook I was selling, I was selling about eight printed books, hardcover and paperback combined. So ebooks represented somewhere between 10 and 15 percent of my sales. That’s a healthy percentage — and I was grateful for it, given that the royalty on an ebook is considerably higher than for a paperback — but it was far from a dominant percentage.

What was even more curious was that the ebook share wasn’t growing much. After shooting up, it seemed to have quickly stabilized at around that 10 to 15 percent mark — and that’s pretty much where it still is. I don’t think I’m an outlier. Other nonfiction writers I’ve talked to say their ebook share of sales falls into the 10 to 20 percent range. Occasionally, for a particularly popular new book, the share will reach up into the twenties, but that seems fairly rare.

The apparent discrepancy no longer seems like a mystery. As the book market has settled down over the last two years, a new equilibrium has established itself. The growth in ebook sales has not just slowed, as it was fated to — as the law of big numbers tells us, you can only double or triple sales for so long before you run out of room — it has flattened out. Ebook sales growth has begun to track the overall growth rate of the market. The ebook market has matured, in other words, and it represents, depending on whose figures you look at, between 20 and 30 percent of the entire U.S. market.

Rather than wilting in the face of the ebook onslaught, sales of printed books have actually held up pretty well. Sales have fallen only modestly overall, and hardcover sales seem remarkably robust.

Don’t get me wrong. The ebook success story is a remarkable one. Ebooks have become a large, vibrant, and essential part of the book market. But they haven’t taken over. Neither fear nor euphoria seems in order anymore.

The ebook revolution, I would argue, isn’t much of a revolution. The book market has not been transformed in the way the music market has. The landscape still looks familiar.

What we’re discovering, in economic terms, is that the ebook is not a substitute, or replacement, for the printed book, as so many have either feared or hoped. Rather the ebook, like the audiobook before it, if on a different scale, is a complement to the printed book. Each form has its strengths and its weaknesses, each has its place. There are many people who have decided that they prefer reading books on screens. There are plenty more who have decided that they’ll stick with ink on paper. Still others are happy to switch between the formats, reading ebooks while scrunched into a plane seat, say, and reading print copies when sprawled on the couch at home.

Beyond the differences in personal preferences, sales breakdowns suggest that ebooks are well suited to certain kinds of reading — light fiction, for instance — but less well suited to other kinds of reading, such as literary fiction and nonfiction. That seems to be why mass-market paperbacks have taken a particular hit recently, while hardcovers and trade paperbacks have shown resilience.

These differences aren’t just a matter of the age of the reader. It’s not that older people are clinging desperately to print, while younger people are embracing digital. The average age of the print book buyer is 42; the average age of the ebook buyer is 41. Kids still like to read printed books, and surveys show that students prefer printed textbooks over electronic ones by a wide margin. No massive generational shift is under way.

For publishers, as for readers, the new equilibrium in the market has turned out to be a happy one. While ebooks have cannibalized some paperback sales, they’ve also brought new readers into the book market and expanded the purchases made by some existing readers. Many of the books that have been sold in digital form would not have been sold in print. Giving people more choice in how they read and buy books means that, other things being equal, they’ll probably read and buy more books. The fact that ebooks carry attractive profit margins provides a further bonus to publishers (though how that added margin will ultimately come to be divvied up remains very much in doubt).

I think it’s a happy equilibrium for writers, too. I’ve already mentioned that the royalties on ebooks are considerably more attractive than those on paperbacks. So as long as the hardcover market holds up, as it’s been doing, we’ll do okay. And for writers who haven’t had luck landing an agent or a publisher, self-published ebooks provide a new route to getting their work into the broad marketplace. That’s a good thing. Professional and independent publishing, which are often themselves portrayed as antagonistic, can and should be complementary. There’s plenty of room for both.

That’s the good news. I wish it were all the news. But it’s not.

The bad news is that there remains a fundamental and destructive tension between what I’ll call the culture of the book and the culture of the computer, and the ebook, lying between the two sides, is being pulled in both directions. Yes, you can read a book on a computer screen, but that doesn’t mean that the computer is a friend to the book. Book reading has never fit all that well into the world of mass media, and it fits even less well into the world of mass digital media. The book has become a countercultural object. To read a book today is to swim against society’s current.

The mind with which we read a book is very different from the mind with which we navigate our everyday lives. In our day-to-day routines, we’re always trying to manipulate or influence or otherwise act on our surroundings, whether it’s by turning a car’s steering wheel or frying an egg or tapping a button on a smartphone or tweeting a tweet. But when we open a book, our expectations and attitudes change. Because, as the University of Florida’s Norman Holland puts it, we understand that “we cannot or will not change the work of art by our actions,” we’re relieved of our desire to exert an influence over objects and people. As a result, we can “disengage our [cognitive] systems for initiating actions.” That disengagement from the busy world frees us to become absorbed in the act of reading. It’s only when we leave behind the incessant busyness of our lives in society that we open ourselves to a book’s power, that we become book readers.

That doesn’t mean that reading is anti-social. The central subject of literature is society, and when we lose ourselves in a book we often receive an education in the subtleties of human relations. Some studies suggest that reading tends to make us at least a little more empathetic, a little more alert to the inner lives of others. We retreat into a book to connect more deeply in the world outside the book.

If you have a smartphone or a tablet or a laptop with you this morning — and I’d be aghast if any of you didn’t — you know very well that the computer is not a tool for removing yourself from the busyness of your lives. It’s a tool for plunging you more deeply into the whirlpool. It’s a technology of action, reaction, and distraction, not a technology of repose and reflection.

If publishers have made a mistake in dealing with the rise of ebooks, it lies in ceding to internet and computer companies power over the formats and the sales of electronic books. Those companies may be necessary and valuable business partners, but their interests are not the interests of those who write, publish, lend, and read books. Their interests, and their profits, lie in promoting the culture of the computer, which means chipping away at the culture of the book. When a person is engrossed in a book, that person is not feeding data and money into the coffers of internet firms.

We see the divergence of interests not only in ugly battles over buy buttons and advance orders. We see it in the dramatic shift away from dedicated e-readers, like the early Kindle and Nook, to multitasking tablets like the iPad and the Fire. A dedicated e-reader is a relatively calm medium, one that suits and promotes deep reading. The multifunctional tablet does the opposite. It’s designed for busyness. If the dedicated e-reader brought the computer into the culture of the book, the tablet drags the book into the culture of the computer.

As one once-enthusiastic reader of ebooks recently told me, “When I sat down with my old Kindle, I thought about books. When I turn on my Kindle Fire, I think about everything but books.”

The great challenge for publishers and librarians and writers today is to defend the culture of the book, whether the book manifests itself in pages or in pixels. Defending the culture of the book means not giving way to the culture of the computer, the culture of busyness and distraction. It means protecting the repose of the reader. It means resisting the urge to “enhance” the book by bringing new software functionality into its pages. And it means fighting the forces of hegemony in formats, in devices, and in retailing. This is a power struggle, as much cultural as financial, and it’s going to go on for a long time.

Whatever the dreams that people like Jeff Bezos and Larry Page and Mark Zuckerberg dream, they are not the dreams of readers.

Thank you.

Image: “A Kind of Regression,” by Ines Seidel.

4 thoughts on “The ebook equilibrium

  1. yt75

    Good synthesis.
    Indeed I recently bought a good android tablet, loaded many books on it (kindle app and other formats), but ended up getting hooked up playing backgammon again (against others on the net), or use it mainly as another web browser …
    And in fact reading much less book as I used to overall.
    One thing I think I would buy more than ebooks though, would be “access to websites for life”, even if “robert & collins dictionnary 2014 edition” for instance.
    And I don’t understand why for these kind of content (many things would be possible), on the web the editors stick to trying to bring the subscription model for it.
    But in fact for such an environment to exist, it would require that there are organisations holding ones “bookshelves of access rights”, with strong privacy constraints, clearly separated from shops and publishers, and with the ability to “move” one’s bookshelf from one organisation to another (only way for any kind of trust on privacy to be possible).
    This would alleviate a lot of the “formats and interworking issues” (as you basically just buy access to a reference in that case).
    Below a draft from 2007 about this (but in French) :

  2. Nicole

    Really well put, thanks! I work in education and this is a topic I think about a lot: can good old-fashioned reading ever really be replaced by the sparkle of 21century tools?

    Obviously ebooks have loads of benefits, but does this make them “better”? We might have more functionality but also more distractions.

    Plus, reading an ebook in the bath = not a good idea

  3. David R.

    Just saw Bezos’ announcement of Amazon’s new music feature, and I got a kick, and thought you would too, out of his sign-off:

    Happy listening (and watching, and reading, and shopping),

    Jeff Bezos
    Founder & CEO

    Seems like more and more of our lives are spent consuming media and less and less of our lives creating it (and other things, Ron Swanson style).


  4. Daniel

    Interesting analysis. I was thinking about this yesterday while browsing through a local chain bookstore. Obviously, most of the inventory in this store is books, but many of them are forms of books that would not work as ebooks. I was blown away at how many novelty (for lack of a better word) books there were. Books with games and little gadgets included and coffee table books made up a significant percentage of the available books. In fact, I’d say the majority of “books” on display there would not work well on a black and white Kindle.

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