Ebooks on the way down? I don’t think so.

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The Bookworm, a painting by Carl Spitzweg

The Bookworm, by Carl Spitzweg

The Guardian has published yet another article prophesying the demise of ebooks:

…Now the official Publishers’ Association confirms the trend. Last year digital content sales fell last year from £563m to £554m. After years on a plateau, physical book sales turned up, from £2.74bn to £2.76bn.
They have been boosted by the marketing of colouring and lifestyle titles, but there is always a reason. The truth is that digital readers were never remotely in the same ballpark. The PA regards the evidence as unmistakable, “Readers take a pleasure in a physical book that does not translate well on to digital.” Virtual books, like virtual holidays or virtual relationships, are not real. People want a break from another damned screen…

Well, speak for yourself.

I can only speak for myself, too, but my experience is exactly the opposite.

Firstly, to me, a book is not a physical object: it is the author’s words. If I bought a paper book and all the pages were blank, I wouldn’t say “Well, it’s the feel of it in my hands that’s important, isn’t it?” – I’d demand a refund.

I’m not the first person to think this way: Ray Bradbury said it before me, in Fahrenheit 451At the very end, Guy Montag is introduced to the people who, by memorising a book, take on the identity of that book, with the aim of preserving the author’s words for future generations. These people are not hoarding paper copies: they’re hoarding the actual words, to be set down in physical form later, when it’s safe.

Further back, the Indian sacred texts, the Vedas, were transmitted via oral tradition for centuries before they were written down. In the Guardian‘s view, then, these books are not “real books” because they are not set down on paper.

I was an early adopter of ebooks, on the grounds that was cheaper to re-buy my paper novel collection in ebook format than to buy a new house, and that was the choice with which I was faced (either that or go and live in a tent in the garden, because getting rid of some books was clearly not a viable option). My first “ereader” was a PDA with a battery life of about an hour. Any serious reading had to be done with the device in the charging cradle, and even a technophile such as I had to admit that this method of reading was never going to challenge paper books.

Then e-Ink came on the scene, and I bought my first ebook reader, which was a very expensive (by today’s standards) iRex iLiad. It was wonderful: it was light, it was portable, and I could have as many books on it as I wanted. And its battery lasted more than an hour, goodbye PDA.

And so I bought books. My dealer of choice was BooksOnBoard, and I bought so many books that they made my account a “trusted account” so there were no daily limits – I was spending over £100 at a time, replacing my thousands of novels with electronic books. Of course, I could have scanned the paper books and converted them that way (and for those I couldn’t get digitally, I did), but scanning a paper book is only the beginning of the process. Even with good OCR, you have to go back and fix the mistakes. It takes hours, and even if you “pay” yourself a stupidly low hourly wage, it’s still massively cheaper to buy a new, retail e-copy.

Nearly ten years later, my ebook conversion project isn’t finished – but there are only a handful of books left to do.

So, in my little n=1 study, purchases of ebooks have dropped dramatically from the early days – but this is not because I’m less interested in ebooks, or because I’ve returned to paper. My initial ebook-buying frenzy was the result of conversion of my existing library to digital; I’m now on the plateau, buying digital to add to my library. So of course my purchasing has slowed down.

I still buy a lot of books – more than I ever did before digital. I don’t have to think “where will I put this?” because my book reader has a capacity of thousands. I can buy, download, and be reading in seconds or minutes: buying a book doesn’t take hours or days. Plus, many books are cheaper now, so I can afford more of them. Digital is the high-volume reader’s dream come true: infinite bookshelf space, low prices, and a massive choice.

I don’t think that I’m unique amongst readers. I would bet that a good proportion of the initial sales figures of ebooks was readers like me, re-buying books they already had on paper, in a format that they could read on their new reading devices. Now that initial phase is over, we’re back to “normal service has been resumed” in ebook-buying land – or, more accurately, “normal service has begun”.

Likewise for reading devices: in the beginning, everyone who wanted to read digitally had to buy a book reader. The only alternative was desktop/laptop, and that’s not really viable. Now, the initial distribution phase is over: everyone who wanted a book reader has got one, and new sales are increasingly often going to be existing customers replacing their old readers (and not everyone will do that every year) or new customers (children/young people getting their first reader). Additionally, there are new ways of reading ebooks: affordable tablet computers have arrived. The first iPad was released in 2010, and it was as expensive as a top-flight bit of kit might be expected to be. Nowadays, the price of an entry-level tablet computer has dropped: you can buy a Kindle Fire for under £50 – which is cheaper than the entry-level Kindle, at £59.99. Of course eInk book reader sales have dropped – not only has the initial rush subsided, but there are now options that just weren’t available in 2007 when I bought my iLiad.

People considering the difference between ebooks and paper should also consider those people who can’t read ordinary paper books. The obvious population are partially-sighted people. My husband is a teacher, and one of his students (years ago now) was partially sighted. She couldn’t read ordinary-sized text, and the only large-print books available were those aimed at older people: Barbara Cartland, Agatha Christie, and so on – hardly calculated to appeal to a fourteen-year-old girl. My husband showed her his iLiad, and she was instantly entranced. Here was a way for her to read the same books her friends were reading: every book could be large print. Her parents bought her a reader, and later thanked my husband.

Then there are the people for whom manipulating a paper book is difficult. What if you only have one hand, or no hands? What if you can’t manage the weight? Book readers are light, and they can be held and the pages turned with only one hand. Or they can be propped up and the pages turned with only a touch.

On the other hand, Amazon has now opened two physical bookshops. Why would they do that if paper books are dying? I would suggest several reasons:

  • I think paper books are dying, but they are doing so very slowly. Paper will be around for a number of years yet, and Amazon is not the sort of company to let any business opportunity slip through its corporate fingers (and let’s not forget, Amazon sell paper books too).
  • Physical browsing is different from internet browsing. Cookies and algorithms show you the books the system things you’ll like, and that’s often a good thing; I’ve made some great discoveries that way. But browsing the shelves of a bookshop can introduce you to things you would never have encountered otherwise. Plus, just browsing a bookshop is fun.
  • Amazon also sells its electronics – Kindle, TV, Echo, etc – in its physical stores. Being able to inspect these gadgets in person before buying is much more important than with books. Despite what the Guardian says, if you’re buying a novel, you’re buying it for the story (which you can still check out online with the free sample), not the great typesetting and the cream-tinted heavy paper pages. (Or maybe that’s what Guardian journalists do buy books for. Miaow!)
  • Amazon is the biggest bookseller in the world: it can afford to open, and if necessary subsidise, a few physical bookshops.
  • If I were a paranoid person who thought that Amazon was really out to destroy the bookselling industry, then I would think that this was the next stage in Amazon’s campaign. After all, people who buy books from an Amazon physical bookshop are still buying from Amazon. And if they’re buying from Amazon, they’re not buying from Barnes & Noble, or Waterstones, or whatever the alternative is. Guess who wins?

So what are my predictions for the ebook market, if I think the Guardian is wrong?

  1. Paper will be the format-of-choice for non-fiction for the foreseeable future. The ease of flipping back and forth, and the indexing, make paper a good choice for non-fiction. Unless, of course, e-textbooks become more like mini downloadable websites, to be used mostly on tablets. I don’t think (at present) eInk is the best choice for books that one typically does not read start-to-finish as the page turns are just a fraction too slow.
  2. Paper novels will be around for the next few years – at least 5-10, and probably more. Moving from paper to digital is a big change, bigger than moving from vinyl to downloads (via cassettes and CDs) was for music. Books have always been physical objects, unlike music. It’s much easier, psychologically, to move from buying a music CD to downloading, because the experience of music doesn’t change; you put your music-format-of-choice in the player, and away you go – it still comes through your headphones or speakers in the same old way. Books are different: it’s a big culture change to move from rows of paper objects with pretty covers on your shelves, to electronic files on your computer/reading device. So the change will be slow, but I think it will happen. Eventually, the many practical advantages of digital will win out over sentiment and habit.
  3. The mass-market paperback is going to be the first victim. The combination of bigger profit margins on ebooks and the rise of indie publishing will result in smaller print runs of mass-market paperbacks, and then a move to print-on-demand as print runs become too small to be viable. This will be seen first in indie publishing (where print-on-demand is the norm already) and small presses. Eventually, the larger publishers will go print-on-demand too.
  4. The hardback will stick around for a lot longer. The hardback is the format of choice for occasions when appearance counts: gifts; presentations and prizes; and reading posh literary fiction on the train.
  5. Paper novels are unlikely to die completely for the foreseeable future, if only because there will be the die-hards (like those who swear vinyl is better than digital for music) who want paper and will provide a market for it, even if at the print-on-demand level.
  6. The dedicated book reader is here to stay. Occasional readers will probably read on their smartphones or tablets, but high-volume readers are more likely to want a dedicated device that is light, has excellent battery life, and doesn’t make their eyes ache.

Time will tell which of us is right!

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