07.21.2010 07:26 AM

By the book

I spotted this the other day in the New York Times. When you think of it, it is astonishing:

Amazon.com, one of the nation’s largest booksellers, announced Monday that for the last three months, sales of books for its e-reader, the Kindle, outnumbered sales of hardcover books.

In that time, Amazon said, it sold 143 Kindle books for every 100 hardcover books, including hardcovers for which there is no Kindle edition.

The pace of change is quickening, too, Amazon said. In the last four weeks sales rose to 180 digital books for every 100 hardcover copies. Amazon has 630,000 Kindle books, a small fraction of the millions of books sold on the site.

Book lovers mourning the demise of hardcover books with their heft and their musty smell need a reality check, said Mike Shatzkin, founder and chief executive of the Idea Logical Company, which advises book publishers on digital change. “This was a day that was going to come, a day that had to come,” he said. He predicts that within a decade, fewer than 25 percent of all books sold will be print versions.

The shift at Amazon is “astonishing when you consider that we’ve been selling hardcover books for 15 years, and Kindle books for 33 months,” the chief executive, Jeffrey P. Bezos, said in a statement.

The gamble that book retailers took – namely, slashing the cost of digital books, as well as the devices upon which we read them – has clearly paid off.  People are reading e-books in record numbers.  I’m one of them: as I wrote months ago, I now read more than ever before – and I’m doing all that reading on an eReader or an iPad.  (And yesterday, I bought my daughter a Kobo at Chapters for $150.)

All of this enthusiasm for books is not without its risks, however.  As with record stores, one can easily see a day when bookstores go the way of the do do bird. And, maybe, when book shelves become a thing for antique collectors and even libraries start to close, too.

I’m personally torn about all this.  On the one hand, the loss of books you can hold in your hand has Orwelliam 1984-ish overtones: if books no longer exist, can’t history also be changed by revisionists, with a tap of a keyboard key?  On the other hand, as my former journalism prof Roger Bird once said to us (when asked about the death of certain words, and continual churning of language): “You can’t stop it.”

What do you think? More being books being read is a good thing.  But is it a good thing when the books are reduced to some bits of digitized data, imprisoned on a flickering screen, with no permanence?

Comments – digital comments – are open.

38 Comments

  1. Lot’s of people have big libraries, while the Kindle is new. You need to buy more to get use out of the new machine.

  2. I’m a published fantasy author with a series featuring a female wizard who works for Government Services and Infrastructure Canada a talking zombie and the ghost of William Lyon Mackenzie King. I’m also the proud owner of a Sony PRS-505 which augments but does not entirely replace print versions of novels for my voracious reading appetite.

    One can look at Amazon’s report a couple of ways:

    A) It’s the end of *traditional* publishing as we know it
    b) E-Books are another method by which to read a novel

    I’m in the “b” category. I don’t think ebooks are going to be the end of bookstores. Amazon might, though. Given that independent bookstores are dropping like flies and our national chain of Big Box stores (Hello Chapters/Indigo) carry stock from primarily the big publishing houses, the smaller independent stores where you could pick up a novel from a small independent publisher are being pushed aside.

    There’s a thousand and one problems with the publishing industry right now. Chief among them is the antiquated, wasteful and ridiculously expensive (for the publisher, that is) method of distributing books where the publisher is responsible to pay the cost for returns of books that haven’t sold. This is a brick and mortar issue whereas e-books are the exclusive domain of online marketplaces like Amazon.

    The entire industry is going through a frantic pace of change right now. Agents are freaked out. Publishing houses are betting on established brands like Janet Evanovich or Peter Straub and it’s harder and harder for new talent to emerge. The only safe bet is that nobody can predict the future of publishing but one thing that nearly everyone in the industry agrees on: the status quo is unsustainable.

    Will ebooks replace print? Not on your life. Will we see more independent book stores closing? Sadly, yes. Do ebooks represent a threat to traditional publishing? I doubt it. It’s important to remember that publishing is a business: if ebooks can make money, they’re going to figure out a way to make more money from them.

    The real danger for book lovers, in my view, is self-publishing. As Amazon promotes its Create Space program, authors of pure dreck can pay to have their book published and placed in some form of prominence on Amazon’s website. This democratization of publishing means that the online market at least, will become flooded with badly written, poorly edited clap trap and it will be harder and harder for the average consumer to find that gem in a pile of book sludge.

    • ktron says:

      >>Sean Cummings says:
      > The real danger for book lovers, in my view, is self-publishing.

      Like the danger from musicians releasing their own records? The horror, the horror!

      • The point is the market becomes flooded with dreck and more importantly, novice writers can be sucked in my clever marketing that gives the impression their book will actually sell or that it will be in major bookstores. Harlequin Horizons is a good example.

  3. MP says:

    Speaking of modern literary developments, do you suppose it’s possible to retire all references to the do do bird?

  4. Cath says:

    What a great topic.

    Personally, as much as I have come to depend on new technologies, when it comes to reading a book for pleasure I much prefer a hard copy edition of a book. I can’t imagine reading off of a screen for too long. I’m almost sure it’s going to be found to be bad for your health by some quazi “experts” eventually.

    If the English language is being mangled anyway, and we’re also hearing from educational “experts” that the whole way children read is changing, what’s next?

    Will it still be important that children learn to read the old-fashion way? Or, is that about to change gears too?

    Of course this is going to lead to governments perhaps having to spend less money on things like text books or keeping those librarians employed once the hard copies are obsolete.

    I have two kids. One who reads like nuts – and reads just about anything. The other child came out of the same school system and has, to my knowledge never picked up a book to read for pleasure. His pleasure is in reading about the robotics technology and items of a more scientific nature.

    Sure raises a lot of questions once you start thinking about it, but for me I’ll stick to my hard copy novels and bestsellers until they’re no longer a choice.

    • Geo says:

      Your comment about your kids is interesting, there are articles coming out about how technology is changing the way we think, our ability to filter the world around us, and how social media affects our id and ego. For the under 40 this is more prevalent as they have been exposed to technology for all there lives at this point, over forty not as much.

      Although I would lament the passing of the book as an object, it is the idea, information and the imagination shared that is the important thing. How that is conveyed is just the tool.

  5. bigcitylib says:

    Well, in T.O. alot of the best used stores have already closed (Atticus, Abelard) or gone on-line where you buy the stuff off a website. Not the same as wandering the aisles. Not as fun looking at books in someone’s private dwelling either (a few have set up that way); its as though you are imposing, and really OUGHT to buy something.

    Also sucks to be an aspiring novelist. No agent wants to take chances. About a year and a half ago I had one tell me the book might work if I changed the main character to a female and threw in a vampire (it was a ghost story).

  6. Brian says:

    When I die, I hope I’ve done enough that they name a library after me.

    As an addicted reader and collector of history, I’m not excited by these trends, and they do alarm me. But I am fascinated. And in my little niche of the world, the change you describe above makes it possible for me to try a business model that would have been impossible just two or three years ago.

  7. ktron says:

    Can you still loan someone a book? If someone scoffs your reader, is your whole library gone?

  8. Greg says:

    Never fear, Warren. Libraries and Librarians love ebooks too and are in the forefront of the ebook movement. Many libraries are now circulating ebooks as well as their physical counterparts. Circulation of both are way up. Librarians promote reading for all and we are dedicated to the idea that the public has a right to read regardless the medium. So, just as physical bookstores and libraries have coexisted forever, virtual bookstores and libraries will live in peace.

    • Riley says:

      Greg says:
      July 21, 2010 at 8:53 am
      Never fear, Warren. … Librarians promote reading for all and we are dedicated to the idea that the public has a right to read regardless the medium.————————————————— Yes, except Amazon, doesn’t. They only promote the right to read if you give them money. And that is the difference between a public library and a bookstore. In the former, you are a citizen — the latter a customer. There is a fundamental difference. A citizen has rights by virtue of his/her status as a human, residence, etc. everyone is equal. Customers only matter if they have money — and since some people have more money than others, some people are more equal than others — to mangle a line form Animal Farm. Citizenship, democracy, one person one vote, public services, libraries — they’re fundamentally different things that stores, dollars and participating in the marketplace. I wish Libertarians would understand that. (sorry to get political and off topic, but the reality is, everything is political)

  9. Steve T says:

    The demise of libraries is the most important aspect to this discussion. Libraries provide free books to the masses. Does anyone expect Amazon, Chapters, or any other private company to give away free e-books? Libraries also engender a love of reading just by their very existence. I take my kids to the local public library every week or two. We dedicate an hour to sitting in the kids’ section, looking at books, and reading some of them together. Others we browse, and then check out to take home. How do you replicate that experience with an e-book?

    E-books are a utilitarian approach to reading, and will certainly grow over the years. But hard copy books will survive, God willing, as will the libraries that stock them.

  10. Tim says:

    Hard copy books will be around until e-readers drop in price to the point where it won’t be a big deal if you drop it in the tub.

  11. Dennis says:

    An online retailer selling to, by definition, people who like to spend time on their computers, is selling more and more ebooks? Shocking!

    While I certainly will consider doing the ebook thing when they become a) a little cheaper and b) closer to the real thing, right now I love holding the book in my hand. (That sounds eerily reminiscent of my pre-digital camera-2002-self talking about how I liked holding pictures in my hand…something I can hardly remember!) I can’t imagine finishing all 1000+ pages of World Without End would be as satisfying if I just scrolled through it.

  12. John says:

    I love books. I love to hold them and read them and put them in the bookcase when I am done reading them. I also love technology, but ebooks is something I just can’t see myself getting in to. It just ain’t the same.

  13. Ex-Pat in US says:

    As an IT professional, I can tell you that it is a common misconception that digital data is not permanent. We are simply writing to disks instead of paper now. Our SQL servers are backed up continually, copies of data are written to tape nightly and then stored at an off-site facility. Any loss of digital information, at any given time, can be restored within hours. I do not see libraries going away, but becoming digital like everything else. I see a future of an online check-out policy for library books. This may not bode well for people who enjoy the experience of visiting a library, but we said that about going to the movie theater at one time too.

    • ktron says:

      Fire or flood may destroy printed materials but otherwise the main things needed to access them are eyes and light. Even a complete illiterate can be taught to store paper safely. It’s interesting to contemplate what reliable techniques will be found to ensure the stability and long-term usability of digital data. We have printed material that is centuries old yet most people can no longer read their 20 year old 5 1/4″ floppies.

      >>Ex-Pat in US says:
      > Any loss of digital information, at any given time, can be restored within hours.

      Even digital data who’s format is unknown or who’s decryption keys no longer work? The cloud is inherently bit-rot proof?

      Vandals can attack a library and destroy its physical volumes, but there is no way they can automatically destroy the hard copies in other libraries: the analogy doesn’t transfer favourably to digital data.

      Digital books are great and should provoke some interesting changes, but they’re not magic.

      • Namesake says:

        re: Even a complete illiterate can be taught to store paper safely… Sure, but more to the point, they can easily be enouraged to burn it (and R&R records, too), by Nazis, evangelicals, & other religious zealots (Eco’s ‘Name of the Rose’) alike.

        It’s a little harder to get the Yahoos to torch all the server farms, tho’, specially if some start hiding some of them underground.

    • Riley says:

      Well, permanent is an amorphous concept from a practical point of view. If something happens to the power grid — permanently — the data will be preserved — permanently — but will be inaccessible — permanently — from a practical point of view. Over the long term, I’ll bet on books and “type” of some sort, even if we revert back to pigments applied to animal skins with a sharpened reed. (and no I’m not a neo-luddite … not even close.)

  14. CQ says:

    I would quess that e-books will more greatly affect the mass paperback market than hardcovers. This will become a great opportunity for many thousands of Out-of-print works. The hardcover market already needed to adjust its upscale pricing and page formatting before this latest challenge.

  15. CQ says:

    I would guess that e-books will more greatly affect the mass paperback market than hardcovers. This will become a great opportunity for many thousands of Out-of-print works. The hardcover market already needed to adjust its upscale pricing and page formatting before this latest challenge.

  16. nope, can’t imagine myself lying on my side in bed holding an ipad reading a book when I go to bed. However on the + side one thinks of the pro’s of this technology. Gone are the days of sneaking into that curtained back room at the video store for “those” movies (pre kids or when they are out on sleep-overs somewhere), now one can just tap the ipad a couple of times and all the prawn you’d ever want is at your fingertips – this posting has too many opportunities for bad pun’s so I’m ending it here..

  17. allegra fortissima says:

    I’ve read all the comments and replies here but yours, Progressive Indian, is the most convincing one!

  18. Craig McKie says:

    I feel that full digitization of the cellulose collections will help preserve the content much better than could ever have been the case previously. Libraries full of paper do burn down (as in the Alexandria library case in antiquity) and sometimes the losses are irreparable. I think that having countless copies of digital versions spread around the world is the best safeguard against this ever happening again. It will certainly prevent any government from expunging copies of publications in current disfavour. I recall for instance the fervent and misguided attempts to keep copies of American Psycho out of Canadian bookstores when it was first published. That attempt failed because Bookstacks in Cleveland, the first online book retailer in the world and a predecessor of Amazon, was online and shipping to Canada.

    I am also encouraged that some of the cost barriers to reading are being removed. After all, it is quite easy to remove copy protections from .pdf files and pass them around. On the horizon are the super dense storage disks. It is imaginable that one day, every person could have their own copy of the entire collected works of humanity and a technical means to inspect, scan and read the contents without any price barriers at all. This makes it well worthwhile to give up the heft of a pile of cellulose. I still have my old first model Sony Reader. I had to import it from New York because nobody here would sell me one when it first came out. Clever people have since developed software to display .pdf format books in native Sony format and also to turn the pages to landscape format with font size control. The device is once more useful to me. It will never be able to display the craft and art of The Book of Kells. But it does just fine on 500 page studies of the personnel and behaviour of the general staff of the Wehrmacht in WWII.

    • allegra fortissima says:

      Do you mean: “Vernichtungskrieg: Verbrechen der Wehrmacht 1941-1944 (War of Annihilation: Crimes of the Wehrmacht), Hamburg 1995?

      Very good history book with well researched contributions and studies. The editors – Hannes Heer and Klaus Naumann – are Germans by the way…

      The “Book of Kells” is beautiful at first sight. I’ll have a closer look at it in a few minutes, since I am pretty much unfamiliar with Celtic Art.

      Regarding .pdf files and removal of copy protections… as an “electronic device nerd” I won’t even give it a try. Will do my treasure hunt as usual in small secondhand bookstores!

  19. Riley says:

    Yes, soon our (anti)Science Minister will self-publish the final word on human origins — Barney Does Dallas. I can’t wait. To hell with those elites, my pastor says the bible says …

  20. James Bow says:

    I don’t know. Did radio die when television became dominant? Did television die when the Internet became dominant? No. But they changed.

    Books have value in their physical form. I’m keeping my library, thankyouverymuch. However, I will look things up on Wikipedia to tell me where I need to start my research. And textbooks could go the way of the dodo. You can fit everything a student needs onto a single iPad. Their backs will thank you. And the information could be more up to date as a result.

  21. Michael Hale says:

    the printed book will return to what it was originally – the vehicle for passing subversive, daring ideas throughout society. the original non-latinate bibles (in their many forms), political calls to arms, satire, etc.

    Printing presses and books will be like vinyl is to music. Independent ideas will flourish and when the Stephen Kings of the world want to appear hip, they’ll put out limited edition print versions of e-books.

    In the meantime, the majority of reading will take place on e-books (or whatever replaces them). And that’s just fine, because it isn’t where you read (the library) or what you read (Harlequins or Penguin Classics) but that you read at all.

  22. Nick says:

    It seems that many people here lament the loss of physical books, largely for interactive reasons: the sensation of wandering shelves, of picking up a book, examining its cover, leafing through its pages; or of physically reading it before bed, curled up on a couch, etc.

    I’m the same: it’s a great subjective experience. However, there is no reason to suspect that similar experiences won’t be possible in a future time; as experiences digital and online become more immersive, who’s to say that we won’t be able to browse a library electronically in a way that satisfies us, perhaps moreso, than a physical one?

    The same goes for digital readers: you may not like the form factor now, but as e-readers become commonplace, why assume that one won’t be created that satisfies your demographic?

    You can be guaranteed that if we’re missing a genuinely great experience from physical books going digital, someone will attempt capture it electronically.

    Right now we’re in an awkward transition phase where physical objects are seen as better than their digital analogs (pun) because we don’t have the technology to make those digital versions as compelling in the physical senses that the good old meat-space world makes them. I can’t help but think this is a temporary condition.

  23. BH says:

    I’m an English scholar. Am I ever going to stop reading/buying print books? Nope.

    I’m not worried. The book is not going to die.

  24. Cam says:

    Nobody’s mentioned

    poetry.

    Heard a former US Poet Laureate today

    lamenting the fact e-readers break apart

    poems

    Their original form is sacrificed, or more accurately it’s unknown to the e-reader.

    Formatting now conforms more efficiently to the

    screen.

    In the process, the poetry is lost.

  25. Cam says:

    Thanks Warren!

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    ,Adeline

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