June 6, 2016

The Future of Ebooks and Print

Lately, there’s been lots of talk about the revival of print and the “death” of the ebook. At best, this talk lacks nuance. At worst, it’s spinning data to suit a narrative. Here’s the truth: ebooks aren’t dying, and neither is print. But it’s also true that print will one day go the way of telephone booths and wristwatches. Sorry, #bookstagram fans.

First, what’s driving the current noise? Mostly, it’s that ebook sales fell in 2015, while print sales were up for the second year in a row. As a result, some print fans have begun to rejoice, especially in the UK, where Waterstones bookstores are thriving and the Nook ebook store has died.

British journalist Simon Jenkins is one of the rejoicing print lovers. In a widely-shared “told you so” column for The Guardian, Jenkins is so eager for the demise of e-readers and ebooks—in his words, “novelties” for “the technodazzled”—that he even points to Amazon’s new brick and mortar bookstore as proof of print’s renaissance. Of course, he doesn’t note that store’s data-driven nature or how it is just one more way Amazon is set to destroy Barnes & Noble—not to mention independent booksellers—once and for all. How you feel about that probably depends on how you feel about aggressive American companies like Walmart, which made similar moves against independent grocers 15 years ago.

What Jenkins and other avid print fans often miss is these are battles, not the war. Sales numbers from last year, or even the last few years, say little about the near or distant future of digital reading. These are small data points that need context.

Three main things, among many other minor factors, are affecting ebook sales right now:

  1. Device evolution and usability
  2. Misleading numbers
  3. An age-old feud

Without acknowledging these, it’s impossible to make reasonable predictions about the future of ebooks, and that does a great disservice to writers and readers. With context, the future of print doesn’t seem nearly as certain.

We Don’t Read Like We Used To

When people think of e-reading, they tend to think of it in terms of “Before Kindle” and “After Kindle.” They forget there are other e-ink e-readers, and they may not even know that the Kindle wasn’t the first. Similarly, they fail to imagine e-reading in a post-Kindle e-ink world.

We’re already living in that world, though. For many, backlit tablet computers, like the iPad and Kindle Fire, have replaced e-ink displays. Unfortunately, reading on a multifunctional device opens the door to a world of competing interests: Sure, Eric can read a book on his iPad, but he may play Words With Friends instead. Or write an email. Or watch Game of Thrones. Or do all of these things, inefficiently, at the same time.

Fewer readers own digital devices that focus solely on reading, so is it any wonder digital reading may be down, that this may affect ebook sales? The amount of multimedia available at any given moment may even be one reason why a quarter of American adults didn’t read a single book in 2014, print or otherwise. Then again, the flexible nature of our devices may also be why audiobook sales have doubled in the last five years.

More on Those Sales Numbers

But has e-reading declined that much? Probably not.

For one thing, some of the sales print enjoyed last year came not from readers putting aside the ebook in favor of the hardback, but rather from adult coloring books, which are likely a fad (nice, but a fad). And, if Pew Research is to be believed, fewer people (63%) read in print last year than in 2014 (69%), while e-book reading stayed about the same (27% compared to 2014’s 28%). Most of the press releases about declining ebook sales—and nearly all of the sensational op-eds on the “death” of the ebook—leave out details like these and, worse, have cherry-picked data.

Consider a headline Publishers Weekly used:

“E-book Sales Fell 13% in 2015.”

How dire! The first line from the report tells the full story, though:

Unit sales of e-books published by traditional publishers [emphasis mine] fell 13% in 2015 compared to 2014…

What counts as a “traditional publisher” can be confusing and depend on the context of the discussion. When it comes to publishing industry statistics, however, “traditional publisher” often refers to the largest trade publishers in the world (a.k.a., the Big Five—Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, and Simon & Schuster). That’s the case with this example. Statistics for medium and small presses, along with the self-published, are either kept separate or are excluded.

This may not seem like a big deal, but it is. If we’re going to talk about the future of ebooks, ignoring data that isn’t about the Big Five is a huge mistake. Excluding it on purpose is lazy or plain old spin.

As the rest of the report mentions, the Big Five control a mere 34% of the ebook market, after having lost 12% of their ebook market share in the last five years. In that same time, smaller, independent presses and self-publishers have made huge gains. Are declining sales that surprising when you’re losing 3% of your market share every year? What about when you’ve been accused of price fixing?

So, yes, “ebook sales are down.” For some. For those who churn out the most press releases and inspire the most op-ed clickbait.

Old Media Hates New Media (Until It Doesn’t)

That the Big Five are losing market share and money when it comes to ebooks is no surprise. The truth is you can’t talk about ebooks without talking about how much has been done to suppress or even destroy them, particularly when it comes to fair pricing and open standards (e.g., EPUB). Many individuals in publishing embrace digitization and openness, but publishing as a whole industry has not. Those aforementioned “traditional publishers” have been behind many frustrating restrictions, as have device manufacturers, including Amazon.

Foolish ebook restrictions go way back. Take the world’s first e-ink reader, the Sony Librie. It’s largely forgotten 12 years later because it left a lot to be desired. The Librie’s pathetic 10 megabytes of onboard storage space could only hold a few books, but what really sucked was the deal Sony had with publishers. On the Librie, you bought an ebook that, 60 days later, got wiped from the device. It was ebook renting, on very strict terms.

Here’s a quote from a 2004 Fortune Magazine article about the Librie:

Because of the Open MG [copyright] restrictions, Librie users can’t actually store books on the reader. They “rent” books and other content like magazines, comics, and newspapers, which automatically vanish at the end of 60 days. If it’s day 61 and you’ve got one more chapter of an epic novel to finish, the entire book is locked down, and you have to “rent” it again. Open MG is flexible enough to allow publishers to alter the restrictions any way they like, but the current library is strictly use-it-and-lose-it.

I’ve never been able to find out if these restrictions were the will of publishers, the will of Sony, or a bit of both, but it doesn’t really matter. The end result, that the e-reading experience suffered, has never really come to an end. E-reading is a million times better today, but publishers and device manufacturers are still squeezing ebooks and those who prefer to use them.

Back in February, Gene Doucette, an author who’s taken the self-publishing route, wrote an excellent blog post about the way the Big Five have treated ebooks, presumably in an effort to keep print and the traditional business model alive for longer.

Here’s one of many pertinent quotes:

After securing the right to price their ebooks unreasonably high and having those prices stick, the first thing the collective brain-trust of the Big 5 did was raise their ebook prices even more. Often, the prices were higher than the price of the print edition, which is just fundamentally insane….

It should come as very little surprise to you that after jacking up the prices of their ebooks at the start of 2015, the Big 5 sold fewer ebooks.

The story may be, and likely is, more complicated, but it is also safe to say old media behemoths and their biggest fans have a long history of fighting change.

Ebooks struggle now, in part, because some players are petrified of the digital age. Some fears are warranted, too, but many are not. Regardless, trying to avoid the inevitable is futile.

The Days/Years to Come

Print is here to stay—for now. But don’t buy into the hype that people will love their dead tree editions forever. In 2014, Pew Research found print was still, by far, the format of choice, but it also found 33% of women, 37% of people under 30, and 45% of the highly educated all read at least one ebook in the last year. Considering many Americans read only a few books a year, this is a big deal.

Believing print will win out in the end, as some people do, is absurd. When ebooks are created with usability in mind, sold at reasonable prices, and read on devices/apps that truly embrace their digital nature (cough, Moon+ Reader for Android), print struggles to compete. And this is only the beginning, really.

There’s a reason why new media overtakes or even replaces old media. It’s the same reason why new cars don’t have cassette players, why you almost certainly didn’t pick up a newspaper today, and why you don’t “DVD and chill.” Believing books will be different from all the other types of technology and old media that have survived—but have been unseated from whatever throne they previously occupied—is foolish. Print is resilient, not invincible.

The future is going to be bumpy for many writers, editors, artists, and publishers—and, yes, for readers, too. The best way to survive the ride is to be aware of, and honest about, the changes that are happening and likely to come. Taking the data at face value is too easy and is frequently misleading. Print sales are up, but ebooks are winning the war.