Yesterday, Sarah pointed out a link that had been posted on Facebook leading to a post on the Wall Street Journal site reassuring readers that print is here to stay. Since I happen to believe there will always be a market, albeit a niche market, for print books, I didn’t have any issues with the article — until I started to read it. So, for good or ill, I feel the need to discuss what the author of the article, Nicholas Carr, had to say as well as some of the responses and their implications for readers and writers.
Don’t Burn Your Books — Print is Here to Stay appeared online January 5th. It is, apparently, an updated version of an earlier post.
In the third paragraph, Carr comments that hard cover books are showing a “surprising resiliency” and that e-book sales growth has slowed markedly. He goes on to point out that the purchase of e-book readers has also slowed as consumer opt for “multipurpose tablets”. He concludes the paragraph with, “It may be that e-books, rather than replacing printed books, will ultimately serve a role more like that of audio books—a complement to traditional reading, not a substitute.”
So what is his proof of these conclusions? A Pew study he doesn’t link to — so we don’t know the size or make up of the study sample. The study allegedly shows a “modest” increase in the number of adults who read an e-book from 16% to 23%. The study also supposedly showed that”fully 89% of regular book readers said that they had read at least one printed book during the preceding 12 months. Only 30% reported reading even a single e-book in the past year.”
Okay, let me count the problems I have with what Carr has to say in that paragraph. First, I have problems with not being linked to the study. We don’t know the ages, locations or even the size of the test sample for the study. Did Pew talk to college students or people over 65? Did they talk to a cross-section of Americans geographically or only in one region? How were the questions phrased? What were the actual numbers? You get the drift.
As for a “modest” increase of 7%, well, that’s not so modest in my opinion. I’ll lay odds that if that had been a 7% increase in the number of people who had read a book, no matter what the format, Carr would have been crowing about how reading was growing by leaps and bounds. Such a declaration wouldn’t fit the message he is trying to get across, so he can only classify it as “modest”. Perhaps it would have helped if he’d included some additional information in the paragraph to explain why this is so “modest” of a gain.
Another indicator that he is, perhaps, skewing the results of the Pew study to meet his needs is how he phrases the last sentence: “fully 80%. . . only 30%. . . .” Ask yourself this, considering the fact we don’t know who was surveyed in the Pew study, is it any surprise that the majority of readers had read printed books instead of e-books?
He notes that the Association of American Publishers reported a sharp decline in the growth of e-book sales, down from triple digits to 34%. Once again, he doesn’t link to the report. However, in July 2012, e-book sales surpassed hard cover sales for the first time in the US. As for the fall from triple digits to double digits, that is only natural as more households already have e-book readers or tablets/smartphones capable of being used to read e-books. So the impulse buying that comes with getting a new device will have slowed. But there is another factor Carr seems to have overlooked or forgotten: traditional publishers and cost/reporting of sales. Many people who read e-books will not pay more than $9.99 for an e-book and that means they don’t buy an e-book from a traditional publisher when the e-book and hard cover are first released. So the reporting for those sales is delayed. Then there is the issue of how the sales figures are compiled. Are purchases from small presses and self-published authors reported? On the whole, no. So there is a big hole in the figures.
I think the statement that had me shaking my head the most was when Carr said “the shift from e-readers to tablets may also be dampening e-book purchases.” According to him, e-books lose their “allure” on tablets because they are competing with Facebook and games, etc. Sorry, but no. First of all, there are free apps for Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc. Having a tablet or smartphone that can connect instantly to the e-bookstore of you choosing — unlike some e-book readers that require either a wifi hotspot or side-loading — makes tablets and smartphones good alternatives. The way to combat the so-called allure of games and Facebook is to write entertaining books. It’s the same reason you want a printed book to be good. You don’t want your reader setting the book aside to watch TV, etc.
Then there’s Carr’s comment that e-book bestseller lists have been “skewed disproportionally” toward fiction. WTF?!? How is that skewed? It shows that readers, on the whole, want to read fiction. Reading is a means of entertainment and escape.
But he overlooks another issue. Traditional publishers were slow to jump on the e-book wagon. Let’s be honest here, most non-fiction — at least non-fiction most people consider worth reading — comes from traditional publishers. So, if they weren’t in the marketplace, that isn’t the fault of the e-book reading public or the resellers like Amazon. That lies at the feet of the publishers.
Carr goes on to show his own prejudice about what books should be when he comments that e-books are like those mmpb books we used to be embarrassed to be seen reading. Those guilty pleasures we read once and then got rid of. You know what I mean: fiction. Not literary fiction, mind you, but fiction that told a good story or let us escape into a life we’d never have. According to him, the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon wouldn’t have happened without e-books. Of course, he doesn’t mention Harry Potter — which didn’t have e-books until recently — or Twilight, etc. But those, especially Potter, wouldn’t suit his purpose.
As a juxtaposition to Carr’s article, let’s note that print units fell 9% in 2012, according to BookScan. This pretty much matches the decline between 2010 and 2011. According to Publishers Weekly, the largest decline came in adult non-fiction ( – 13%). Mass market paperbacks fell 20.5%, slightly less than in the year before.
Publishers Weekly also reports that the number of people who read a book this past fall decreased 3% over the same time a year ago. Twenty three percent of Americans 16 years old and up read e-books. That is up 7% over the previous year — gee, here’s some of the information I was looking for when reading Carr’s article. PW goes on to report that the percentage of folks who read print books fell from 72% to 67%. I may have missed it, but I don’t remember seeing that reported in Carr’s article. Just like I don’t remember seeing that the Pew report included the information that “33% of Americans 16 and up had either a dedicated e-reader or a tablet, up from 18% in late 2011.”
Let’s be honest, print — especially hard covers — is here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future. E-books are still in their infancy. People who buy print books are more likely to continue buying hard covers because 1) they come out first, as a rule, and most people want to buy a book when it first comes out; 2) those who buy hard covers tend, as a general rule, to keep the book. They are the collectors, the ones with their own private libraries; 3) cover price aside, most folks are buying their hard covers at a discounted price either through Amazon or other on-line retailers or by using their “club card” for their favorite local bookstore. That makes them think they are getting a really good deal on the hard cover when they can see the publisher marked it at $25.00 and they were able to get it for $18.00 or so. Because of agency pricing, you don’t get that with e-books — yet. That will soon be changing, at least for most of the so-called Big Six publishers.
But Carr needs to remember that our world is changing. Our children are techno savvy. They aren’t intimidated by reading on a dedicated e-book reader or their tablet or smartphone. They like the fact they have instant access to most any book they want. They appreciate the fact they can carry hundreds of books around with them at any one time, more if they have an SD card filled with books as well. Then there are those who are environmentally conscious and appreciate the fact e-books don’t use paper, etc.
What that means, in my opinion, is that time will show e-books taking over a larger and larger portion of the market. It’s not going to happen overnight, but it will happen. The fact that you have major publishers with digital only lines now shows they feel this is the way of the future. Print books will remain, in fewer numbers and more of a niche market in the future. Frankly, I think we are going to see more and more expresso print machines popping up as publishers go to more of a print on demand model: you go into your local bookstore and browse. If you see a book you want, you go to the expresso machine — no, this one doesn’t give you coffee — and program in the appropriate title, etc., and it prints out the book, binds it, etc., right there while you wait. But even that isn’t going to happen quickly. If there is one thing I’ve learned about this industry, it’s that the traditional arm of it hates change more than most do and will drag its heels and kick and scream as it is forced into the current century.