When did the form factor of books become more important than the content?
Yes, that’s a rhetorical question, but it just keeps coming to mind when I run across articles like this piece in today’s Guardian: “How eBooks lost their shine: ‘Kindles now look clunky and unhip.'”
The particular Kindle the article is actually talking about is the all-angles-and-buttons thing from ten years ago that looked like something out of the Star Wars universe. Today’s Kindles are a lot smaller and sleeker, to the point where the Oasis isn’t much bigger than a Gideon New Testament. (Anyway, how many ten-year-old gadgets wouldn’t look ‘clunky and unhip’ today?) But that’s really only a minor point. The article talks about how new Publisher Association figures purport to show that ebook sales have fallen by 17% while physical book sales are up by 8%, which really isn’t something you can lay solely (or even largely) at the feet of clunky ten-year-old Kindles.
The article is full of anecdotal evidence, and it doesn’t try very hard to distinguish between correlation and causation. Does a decline in tablet sales since 2014 have anything to do with a decline in ebook reading? Are people reading fewer ebooks because paper books are pretty and smell nice? (All right, to be fair the article never actually does delve all the way into the “smell of books” cliché, though it does quote Bookifer Tumblr operator Jennifer Cownie saying “All these people are really thinking about how the books are—not just what’s in them, but what they’re like as objects,” when discussing the rise of books as objets d’art.)
Other points it touches on: children’s books aren’t really made for e-readers, and audiobooks are doing well. The figures it cites don’t cover self-published or other independently published works, which are making up an ever-larger portion of ebook sales. And genre sales are migrating ever more toward ebooks as well. One point it doesn’t mention is that a significant portion of print sales may have been driven by a fad for adult coloring books, of uncertain duration or future—or the countervailing theory that Amazon’s switch in discounting from ebooks to print books might be responsible.
Every time some new set of figures comes out purporting to show a change in the market, people reach for the tea leaves and tarot cards. Sometimes it seems like no potential explanation is too far out there for someone to offer up as a good potential fit.
At least some of them do attempt to support their surmises with figures, as was the case for a presentation Codex Group’s Peter Hidick-Smith gave at BookExpo America. That presentation links ebook reading to e-ink readers, and lays the blame for ebook sales declines on declining use of those readers as their owners switch to tablets. And that wouldn’t be too surprising, given how many more distractions and other forms of media are available to tablet users.
But when these theories hinge on people wanting paper books or not wanting ebooks for some reason other than the content within the book—be it that paper books are nice things, or Kindles are “clunky and unhip”—it makes me wonder at what point books stopped being important as containers for knowledge and started to mean more as ways to decorate your room.
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I love my Kindle! 🙂 It is six years old, but not klunky at all!
I hugely prefer ebooks when reading, for all the well known reasons.
I hold on to a few ebooks because of nostalgia, because of rarity, etc, and because like you say “the look better”. Asteatics is importantant, and a beautiful book is like a beautiful car, it has a strange attraction…
Obviously the content is still king, by far.
You have pointed out mostly everything that’s un accurate in that article, just I would like to mention, given that The Guardian is UK based, that the part about Amazon big discounts on physical books probably don’t apply to UK numbers, as in Europe physical books also have a price fixed by the publisher, I’m not sure about the UK, it might be different, but it certainly applies to France, Italy, Portugal and Spain, and I’m almost positive that it’s the same in the rest of the EU. Of course, they can be mixing UK interviews with US numbers to throw some evidence in a click bait article…
As it’s been discussed, the real numbers probably should be pointing some kind of balance tendency instead of a exponential grow for ebooks as it was in the past, some decline as not hardcore-readers move out of their ereaders, and then us hardcore-readers buying less ebooks as we realize our hoarding habits of sale ebooks and our to-be-read list of bought ebooks thanks to Kindle Flash and other similar sales has grown out of control.
And there’s the evidence that if you want to gift a book to a book-lover, you choose the physical book, and a pretty edition if it’s available. Ebooks compete with mass-market editions, which are certainly disappearing, pretty editions illustrated with care will become the vinyl of book industry, not as quick as predicted when everybody was shouting about physical books going out, but certainly in 20-30 years.
“as in Europe physical books also have a price fixed by the publisher”
Not in the UK. It used to have price controls on print books but that ended in the 1990s.
Right. That was the Net Book Agreement. Oddly enough, some of the same folks who were fine with ending Net Book then were nonetheless in favor of Agency Pricing in the wake of the Apple thing.
Thanks for correcting my mistake, I really thought they would be applying the same rules as in France and the like.
The reason that the sales of eBooks – sold by the big publishers – havefallen is that they charge inflated amounts for the digital version, so that it won’t compete with the print book. So, their sales of print books have risen and the eBooks have fallen. Surprise!
Yeah, that’s kind of implicit in the thing about Amazon switching from discounting ebooks to discounting print, though I could have done a better job bringing that out.
But I suspect that, like many phenomena, there isn’t going to be one simplistic answer that explains everything.
What I find perplexing about most “ebook vs. paper” articles, including this one, is the assumption that the content IS the same. It most certainly isn’t. Many ebooks are missing illustrations and an index, which is a significant difference in content.
People always say that, but I’m pretty sure that the vast majority of ebooks people actually read are mass-market fiction and nonfiction prose works of the sort that don’t tend to have illustrations or indexes even in the print version. (There’s the odd exception, like Wen Spencer’s Black Wolves of Boston which has ten illustrations by Heather Bruton, but the ebook version Baen put out includes those illustrations, too.)
When discussing why people prefer print books to ebooks or vice versa, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to suggest it might be caused by issues that would affect only a tiny fraction of ebooks overall. That tiny fraction of ebooks might suffer by comparison to its print equivalent, but am I going to forego reading a John Grisham ebook which is effectively identical in pixels or paper because the digital version of some complicated reference book doesn’t do its print version justice?
Most nonfiction books in print, not just complicated reference books, have an index. At least the ones published my mainstream publishers. Just go to a book store or a library and select a dozen nonfiction books at random and check. Very few ebooks are indexed. That’s why the only ebooks I buy are novels. Yes, “people always say that,” it’s because it’s true.
ebooks don’t have index under non-fiction? not true as they all have those. ebooks are more useful to visual and audio learners (as well as the other ones too including people with disabilities) (textbooks maybe an exception though combination of digital and physical usually used in the learning arena too as stated below). there are cons for ebooks though under ereaders, they are less though under tablets too, the cons could be reduced. when reading a physical book too, 1 cannot deny the fact that 1 doesn’t get distracted as attention has gone down the drain with the start of Internet which has gone to smartphones and what not (slow tech is a beautiful youtube video with regards to that).
the way 1 goes about in the digital world is anyway very different to the physical one (writing for the web is an MOOC course and coincidentally, there is a book called writing for the web too-author is different from the person teaching that course). physical one, many would go from 1 end of the book to the other end and most likely would not go in-depth in relation to that topic or various areas that 1 ones to learn about. digital world, many would just skim through and try to retain important stuff including main topics and then would link those to other articles or videos or books (ebooks).
It is slow tech by joe kraus