The announcement of the death of real books was premature it seems. Like the paperless office it is unlikely to come about any time soon. Sales figures reveal that we like our physical books. Really like them. Like to hold them and to read them, like to own and borrow them and like to enjoy them as aesthetic objects. And the same statistics reveal that we buy lots of e-books, although not quite so many Kindles as we did. So who is winning the war?
Real book vs e-books
Let’s start by rejecting the idea of a war. The book forms, electronic and printed, are not in opposition, not in conflict. Guess what, it’s not either/or, not a duality in opposition, but and/both. If you read books on a screen it doesn’t mean you don’t read printed books. And vice versa.
When Kindles and other similar e-readers were introduced their sales took off, and the sales of e-books rocketed with them. But pretty quickly people took up positions on the formats. Bloodless nerds! That was what a well-known writer called Kindle-users at a literary festival in 2011. The audience responded with sustained applause. In those days it seemed that the superior position was to reject the new technology. Oh, except for people on holiday or in hospital.
Today you see people using e-readers in trains and on London Transport. A student of mine from the Middle East once remarked that reading on public transport was the most striking feature of London. I have a theory that Londoners are among the most dedicated readers in Britain. They bring e-readers out at reading groups, and find books for you at the drop of a mention if they can lay their hands on their device.
Kindle purchases have decreased. Instead, people are reading more on mobile phones and tablets. Even I have a downloaded book on my ipad. It was offered free with a subscription and I accepted on condition I was instructed how to download and access it. It was simple. I will read it.
E-Book sales are falling
Earlier this year The Bookseller reported that e-book sales were falling for a second year and sales of printed books were rising. Hoorah for printed books. Let’s look a little closer at the figures.
The decline in e-books was said to be about 4%. And the rise in printed books about 7%. But hang on a moment, because there is a more nuanced story.
- The e-book figures are for books published by publishers, and do not include self-published books. It may be that sales of e-books have not fallen at all, they are just not counting one segment of the market.
- Two types of real books have been increasing in recent years: colouring books for adults and children’s books.
- In the UK, austerity has closed many libraries. Buying books may represent an alternative to borrowing books. I don’t know of any research to support this possibility, but library borrowing has reduced. SHAME on the library closers.
- Books as aesthetic objects are increasingly being appreciated, especially children’s books, but also in the adult market. Think about those beautiful Persephone Books, or the covers that enhance some recent publications. I wrote about some excellent covers recently: read more here.
People are spending more on books. This is a key piece of information. Books are not dying. And it is premature to announce that readers’ enchantment with e-books is over.
Room for both e-books and printed books?
Isn’t there room on your shelves for both e-books and printed books (as it were)? Isn’t there room for both in the market place? And in libraries? And in bookshops?
Many of us will hold on to our hard copies of books, even books we are unlikely to reread. For many readers it is the book itself, as object, that we want to own; want to endlessly repeat the experience of handling the book, turning the pages, smelling the pages, hearing the particular noise of turning the page. Here is the author, David Nicholls speaking at the London Book Fair in April 2015.
My love of the book as object, and by extension the public library and bookshop, has to do with the way stories are experienced, remembered, shared and passed on. No one has yet found a way to unwrap digital data, to turn it into something you cherish, or to give online browsing the same pleasure, satisfaction and sense of discovery as walking around a bookshop. [David Nicholls in 2015 speech to London Book Fair, Guardian April 2015. Speech available on You Tube.]
He has resolved the non-existent opposition by buying both real and e-versions of books.
What we should care about
We should care that
- Independent bookshops are disappearing.
- Libraries are being closed.
- Writers earn so little.
- Writers have been expected to appear at events without payment. (Thank you Philip Pullman for your campaigning on this issue.)
- And the commercial practice of ‘pernicious discounts’ of the cover price of books means that authors’ incomes are diminished. (Again, thanks Philip Pullman for the publicity about this.)
And we should be pleased that there are excellent independent publishers about. And that there are still so many excellent books being written, despite all of the above.
Over to you
Do you have any views on e-books, real books, and the future of books? Do you use a Kindle? What are the advantages, disadvantages, pleasures, frustrations …?
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