The death of real books/the end of e-books?

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.

  1. 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.
  2. Two types of real books have been increasing in recent years: colouring books for adults and children’s books.
  3. 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.
  4. 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?

via visual hunt

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

Harold Knight, The Green Book

We should care that

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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Filed under Books, Libraries

8 Responses to The death of real books/the end of e-books?

  1. Teri

    As a person with poor vision, it’s a blessing to be able to have a Kindle. I was to the point where I was reading large print books but it’s very difficult to find non-fiction books (one of my favorite genres) in that format.

    I love books. I’ve loved them since I was a kid, but if I have to choose between reading books I love on a Kindle and not reading at all, give me Kindles!

    • Caroline

      There are so many reasons to have a Kindle, and poor vision is surely a very good one. You are adding to my argument that we need both ebooks and real books. Glad you are still determined to read.
      Thanks for the comment.

  2. I love and use both. I resisted a Kindle for a long time but when one found its way into my hands, I was hooked. I love that you can think of a book, buy it, and start reading it all in the space of a couple of minutes. It’s fabulous! I also love real books, the smell and feel of them. Also fabulous! I support indie bookshops regularly and I buy books from Amazon for my Kindle.

    I don’t understand why publishers resist e-books so much. They are a natural progression surely in this technological revolution we are living in? The high prices some publishers set for e-books is possibly one of the reasons print is “enjoying a resurgence”? I don’t know about you, but I’m not going to pay £9.99 for a novel in e-book. So I suspect there is a bit of engineering going on here. Which isn’t fair on the author if their e-book isn’t selling as well as it could if it was more reasonably priced. The figures do exclude self-published e-books, as you point out. As a self-published author e-books are an absolute boon, and I’ve sold far more copies of my self-published book in e-book than print. But of course those sales won’t be included in this “resurgence” narrative!

    There is definitely room for both. I love, read and buy both, as do many of us. I just wish publishers would accept e-books for what they are – a relatively easy (and cheap) way to increase their profits, not to mention the author’s earnings – and stop the silly resistance and disapproval.

    • Caroline

      Thanks for this thoughtful addition to the comments. Publishers give much more favourable terms for royalties for ebooks, because they are not expensive to produce. They would rather take profit from printed books, I imagine.

      Why self-published books are not included in those statistics, and why there is no way to calculate them at the moment is beyond me. It implies that self-published books are not really in the same market. But as readers, and book bloggers and writers know, that’s nonsense. The self-published market does not deserve the nickname ‘vanity publishing’. It’s often the only way someone can get their book out there for the public. And sell it because the readers want it.

      But the argument is definitely resolving in favour of using both ebooks and printed books, bother writers and readers.

  3. christine_a

    I so agree with your point about the aesthetic appeal of a real book. When my book group read Mothering Sunday recently we all agreed the choice of the Modigliani painting on the cover added to the reading experience. Conversely I find the ability to look up obscure words in an e-book very useful. (We recently did Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here and his vocabulary was very outdated – it would have been tiresome to constantly look up each unusual word.)
    I do care that independent bookshops are disappearing but I seem to be in the minority among my book groupees. Price is the determining factor and with so much discounting going on how can independent shops compete?

    • Caroline

      Hi Christine,
      I can understand your frustration with the idea that price is all. I avoid Ama*on because I think they want to control the market, or as much of it as they can. I order from Hive. But discount books are undermining writers’ incomes. Check out the 2nd Pullman link. And market forces are skewing publishing in favour of big sellers rather than quality and at the expense of experimentation and risk. At least in the big conglomerates. So hurrah for the independent publishers.

      And thanks for your comment about the joys of printed books.


      • christine_a

        I keep thinking I should buy from Hive – do you need a special App in order to buy e-books from them?

        Interesting that Philip Pullman is talking about reviving the Net Book Agreement in some form – I think I read someone suggesting that elsewhere – hope it gains traction.

        • Caroline

          I order on-line, like any other on-line shop. Google Hive Books and you’ll find it. I don’t know about what platform the ebooks are available on, but I notice that you can download them from Hive. They support local bookshops so not entirely undermining independent book shops with your purchases.

          Ah yes the Net Book Agreement. Smacks of too much control in our market driven economy.

          Thanks for your comment Christine.

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