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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