Ebooks: Publishing Shoots Itself in the Foot

I get very tired of misleading headlines in the media, which continues to be biased against the conventional book. On the BBC website the other day there was an article entitled ‘Sales of Printed Books Slump in 2012’. This was based on the statistic that the revenue of the paper book market had fallen by 4.6% across the past year, a loss of around £74 million in the UK.

However, a spokesman from the Bookseller declared that ‘In essence, people are buying more books but they are paying less for them’. This is because the ebook market rose about 5% to 13-14% of the market share (the article admits that ebook figures are hard to verify) and the fall in profits is the result of heavy discounting by publishers, with many books being sold at rock bottom prices.

I think this is what they call a ‘loss leader’, a way of enticing consumers into a new market in the hope they’ll become hooked. There are a couple of problems with this, however. The first is that the much lauded growth of ebooks is really not that impressive. When CDs were introduced in the mid-80s, they rocketed ahead of vinyl, with market share growing 20-30% or more each year. This is not surprising; the CD marked an evident improvement in the experience of listening to music: consumers enjoyed much better sound quality and durability with their new purchase. Ebooks don’t improve the book that’s being read, and at best they imitate the experience of ordinary reading. Then there are the surveys that indicate some reluctance by readers to switch formats. This blog seems to have access to good statistics and claims that last year nearly half the kindles given as gifts in the UK had still to be opened, a month after Christmas. And this year’s survey claims that a third of people given eReaders in the USA used them once before putting them aside. Ereaders are not the unqualified success publishers hoped they would be in converting non-readers into readers. As for increased durability, well, let’s not get into the problems of power failure, problems with amazon, issues of obsolescence and the interesting situation that will occur the next time a main publisher hits the wall. Owning an ebook is only loaning one while the company lasts.

However, between the huge discounts the publishers are offering and the tsunami of self-published works currently flooding the market, readers are having their perception of value altered. I heard publishers fretting about this at a literary festival event I attended: if a nicely produced book retails at around £10, it will be considered as a good gift. However, if customers begin to associate books with the price of a pound or 99p, this is far too cheap as a gift option. But of course canny consumers will become increasingly reluctant to pay more for their own reading needs. If there is a ready supply of books at this extremely low rate, who would pay more? Add to that the wealth of reading material available online for free, and suddenly books aren’t commercial products any more, they’re moving towards open source.

My feeling all along with ereaders is that they are a welcome addition to publishing as a multi-media industry. They are great for readers who do a lot of travelling – communting to work and so on. They can be very good for people with poor eyesight, as the font can be easily increased. My friend with MS loves hers, because she can put it down on a table, saving strain on her hands (although watching her try to use the teeny buttons below the screen can be painful). But this doesn’t account by any means for all the people who love reading. The problem with the ebook is that it is fundamentally a gadget, not a significant technological improvement in the act of reading. They are a great addition to the options we have for reading, but as a replacement for books, they are not entirely satisfactory. And their main effect so far has been in efficiently reducing the overall value of the book market.

To say this, though, is like an act of treason in the current climate. I think this is because there is a powerful fantasy at work in our culture that insists technology is a force for great good. What’s new must be better than what’s old. The end of the nineteenth century was supposed to have witnessed the collapse of the ‘grand narratives’, which is to say the stories surrounding religion and science that supposedly showed mankind headed towards a state of perfection, stories that explained life and gave us optimism for the future. At the end of the twentieth century, I think technology has given us a new boost in such fantastic endeavours, a sort of steampunk rewrite of the old grand narrative of science. Whether that’s true or not, the stories remain skewed towards the celebration of ereaders and the derision of paper. But right at the moment, publishers have paid huge amounts to create new departments to handle ebooks, they have put thousands of hours into creating digital archives and paid substantial legal fees to sort out nightmare problems of rights. And all this to provide consumers with nearly free books. Who says businesses aren’t charities?

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44 thoughts on “Ebooks: Publishing Shoots Itself in the Foot

  1. Hear, hear. I’m trying to get on with a kindle but find myself in a race to click to the next page. i’m sure this says much about me and my competitive nature but does not enhance the reading experience.

    • I was given an ipod for Christmas by Mr Litlove, and I really like it a lot. But I find I’m not so enthused to listen to audio books on it. When he downloaded the stories to CDs, I had them in my hands, I could see these CDs that represented time spend in glorious idleness and relaxation. Now that they are just on the ipod, it doesn’t feel the same – I can’t see how many hours of relaxation I have. So definitely something changes with the virtual experience.

  2. I’m tempted by e-books because of space constraints but have yet to buy one bc I want something longlasting and not yet another gadget. A sentence like yours: “Owning an ebook is only loaning one while the company lasts.” just stopps me cold every time. But for how long?

    • It seems to be such an issue with gadgets of all kind – this built-in obsolescence. I hate the fact that you have to keep upgrading technology to get it to keep working. It seems like a real swizz!

  3. The joy of statistics!
    I quite agree with you, the reading as such isn’t improved but e-books clearly have a few advantages.
    I will always prefer real books, still I’m enjoying my kindle.
    I find the amazon story alarming fro many reasons. It shows how fragile anything is that is stored electronically. My “fear” is that blog content for example could be deleted or used by the blog platfrom without any need to ask for rights like Facebook did it with phots as far as I heard (I don’t have a Facebook account).
    The other things is – you can be controlled with an e-reader. Ayntiem I log on, they will know which parts I have underlined or can see my quotes… Creepy. And monitor much better what I buy.

    • Well you’re quite right – all new technology makes our entertainment world porous – people can look into it and they can insert stuff and take it away. The value of being able to download a book instantly has to be balanced by the prospect of losing it just as quickly. And of course it IS Big Brother-ish. Ebooks definitely have specific advantages, and I wouldn’t want to deny them. It’s just…. they’re not the Second Coming, you know?

  4. You should be burned at the stake for such heresy! ;) There is a sort of grand narrative that technology is always good and it will save us from ourselves. Right. I was reading a US study the other day that showed that 78% answered they has read a book in the last year and only something like 14% of them read a book on an ereader. If I am remembering correctly, the study also asked what format people preferred to read in and the overwhelming majority said print.

    • Heh, I can hear them piling up the kindling! :) Ereaders are great for travelling, and useful for storage and absolutely great for free stuff. So I wouldn’t want to dismiss them out of hand. But well, the experience of reading on paper is still my personal preference. I thought I’d be more alone in that than I turn out to be!

  5. “They are a great addition to the options we have for reading, but as a replacement for books, they are not entirely satisfactory.”

    This is perfectly put. I have a Sony Reader and enjoy it very much for borrowing books from the library or picking up books on impulse at a discount, or for getting and storing books I don’t expect to cherish as part of a collection (a lot of cheap paperbacks are hardly beautiful objects in themselves, for instance, like a lot of mysteries — so I don’t miss having them in “real” copies). I like being able to bring along options to read, including when traveling, too. But I’ve run into some technical problems downloading purchased or borrowed titles–not something that every happens with a paper book! I can bookmark and makes notes on the Sony, but there are logistical things that are just easier with an actual book–including flipping through it for something you are trying to remember, if (for instance) you are discussing it in book group or writing a blog post. And for some books I like the feel or the look or the heft of them, or I want to be sure I actually OWN them for real rather than leasing them–which is one of the biggest annoyances for me about ebooks. I love having the e-option, but I love paper books too, and if I *had* to choose one form over the other, I’d choose paper all the way.

    • Such interesting comments, Rohan. You’ve had a chance to really get to grips with your ereader and see how it fits into your life. It’s swings and roundabouts, isn’t it? And so interesting that if the chips were down, you’d opt for paper. I know when I’m working, I have to have several books open and spread out around me or I lose what I’m thinking and where I’m taking an argument. It would do my head in to have them all superimposed on the one small screen. This is where I feel we’re at with ereaders: they do some things very well, but they are not perfect and we’d be selling ourselves short if we sung their praises as if they were.

  6. I’ve had a ereader for just over a year and I don’t think I’ve ever bought an ebook for more than about £1.50. I buy print books at full price, but the ready supply of very cheap ebooks mean that I never need to spend lots of money on them. The offers have made me buy books I would never normally try (therefore gaining new readership for the author) but they have also stopped me from spending more money on the print books of authors I already enjoy. It is a very tricky situation they’ve got themselves into and I’m not sure what I’d do to fix it.

    • Jackie, you see exactly the point I’m making. I know if I had an ereader, I would use it for free or very cheap books. After all, I’d have already paid £100 for the thing – I wouldn’t want to put full price books on it after that. I really think it will end up reducing the value of the book market and lowering the viable price for a book.

  7. I am continually baffled by how popular e-readers have become, in terms of how many were bought – and less surprised that many are scarcely used! They just don’t seem to provide anything that the book wasn’t already doing, and I have never been tempted for a moment to get one. If I jetted around the world, maybe, but commuters can just as easily put a book in their bag as an ereader, and worry less about being mugged in the process!

    • ‘They just don’t seem to provide anything that the book wasn’t already doing’ – well, absolutely! I keep hearing about people being mugged in London for their phones, and the muggers handing them back because they are not valuable enough. I presume that will happen with ereaders in time (although they are doubtless still muggable items right now). I know if I commuted (and heaven forbid), I’d want a real book with me for comfort.

    • Yes, the most tempting option for me with an ereader would be access to books otherwise out of print. But like you, I think I would find the experience rather hollow, on the whole.

  8. What interests me most about your post is your relating the reading habit and consumer behaviour to the ‘grand-narrative’. Just the other day I was talking to some friends, identifying certain social phenomena that change like a pendulum, swinging back and forth between two extremes, but others may develop in an irreversible direction. From your post, it looks like reading is closer to the former, to which I’d have to give out a sigh of relief.

    • So far, or at least once we’d got past stone tablets and papyrus, we have tended to be stubbornly interested in the book-as-codex. Paperbacks never did crowd out hardbacks, and so far, people do still read despite radio, TV, film and the home computer. Books have been under fire, one way or another, pretty much all their existence, and yet they seem to hang on in there! Thank goodness.

  9. I wonder about e-book price points too. I just don’t see how artificially low prices and a raging torrent of throwaway content can create or sustain things like author reputation, legacy or a literary scene. I’m interested to see if there’s a ceiling for e-books – a point where the ‘meh’ feeling of all those people who don’t use their reader much and those that never unpacked it starts to just see the e-book market stagnate in terms of sales and reach. My thinking is that has to be a plateau fairly soon if devices sold aren’t being actively used and issues like ownership vs lease, ability to use it with libraries etc aren’t resolved.

    • Alex, I complete agree. I think that the top of the curve will come, and probably sooner rather than later. I also agree with you that there are still tricky issues that have not been clearly solved. And if there is a serious problem or crisis, a big publisher goes to the wall, or amazon pulls the plug once too often, then I think that would be an interesting test of ereaders’ popularity.

    • Oh they are good for travel, when there’s a lot of it (travel that is). Mind you, I have a tendency to over-prepare for most things and feel that I would probably always have a big book for a journey, just in case!

  10. The stats I’ve seen are showing that the curve is flattening out. Ebooks are a gadget, and people try them out. But they aren’t at this stage the future. Print books are still holding their own. I think the bigger problem are magazines and periodicals and they have been decimated by free info online. I don’t know what’s going to happen to reporting and journalism.

    • I can tell you, Lilian, that it’s a pretty big issue here in Australia. Freelance journalists such as myself as having a hell of a time finding work. There’s no budget to commission writers and in-house writers are losing their jobs too… it’s grim.

      As for e-readers, Litlove, well, I’m glad to hear UK publishers are investing in at least confronting the technological landscape. I’m not sure Australian publishers have a bean to invest. Statistics are slippery because they can be manipulated so easily, and I often find the figures contradictory and confusing, but I don’t think the practice of price slashing is ultimately helpful. When I was in ad sales we used to call it ‘distress selling,’ and it’s very, very hard to claw back your prior pricing platform once you’ve sunk as low as 99 cents or pence. It is dangerous as well as demeaning to hard work that goes into producing a book of any quality worth protecting. Happy New Year, by the way. I miss my blog friends!!!!

    • Yes, I quite agree. I see more and more journalistic content disappearing behind pay walls at present (when it’s quality content). In one way, this may be an answer as it’s magazines and newspapers that are the least environmentally friendly paper options. However, making journalists’ work free can surely not be the answer.

      Di – Happy New Year! It’s great to hear from you and I hope it’s all going okay. I heard that Australia was a good location for the ereader as lots of places in the country have a significant journey to make to a book store, so being able to download is a huge plus. However, I can see that a downside to this would be publishers with not much in the way of spare cash. I couldn’t agree with you more that price slashing is dreadfully demeaning when writing takes huge amounts of blood, sweat and tears. Musicians rely on concerts and merchandise to bring the money in, but writers really can’t use literary festivals in the same way. It’s no solution to make writing into a skill that ‘anyone’ can do and therefore without value.

  11. I wonder if the feeling that so many people are buying ereaders and reading ebooks comes from the fact that they are constantly being improved–newer and better and all that. People who really like gadgets are likely to keep buying the improved versions so it is an endless cycle of new and newer. I wonder if this helps inflate the statistics? Not sure, am just wondering. I have a Nook but to be honest I rarely use it. I will charge it and think I am going to take it to the gym where it (admittedly) sits quite nicely on the tray on the elliptical meaning I can hold on and work out and read all very easily, but then I find myself with Cashelmara squeezed onto that same tray, one hand on book and another on the machine and am just as happy and have forgotten all about the Nook at home. Even my niece who loves her cell phone and Kindle fire for web surfing has never read a book on it and prefers her paper books–and she is the new generation (what are they called–natives whereas I am a simple immigrant). And my sister bought my mom a Nook (as they were so incredibly cheap–it was a sin not to buy one…) who has not yet opened the box and laments the purchase. I told her to return it (not tell my sister) and then just buy the books or whatever else she wanted instead as I know she will never use it. So, all this to say–I’ve never understood why it must be an either or scenario. Why can’t publishers offer both formats and take advantage of both types of consumers–makes sense–why not make the most money off everyone (and make everyone happy–I know it’s not that simple though…). Nicely thought out post and as always thought provoking.

    • Well I am absolutely in the camp of: Why must it be either/or? The ereader can be useful, however, it is still not sufficient as a replacement for the book. If either were to be withdrawn, I am sure there would be a huge chorus of protest! I do think you are right that issues of buying the latest gadget inflate sales – already we’re onto the -what? – third kindle? And my son is just the same as your niece. I asked him the other day if he’d like a kindle and he said no, if he wanted to read a book, he’d read a book. He adores his computer games, but has no time for just any old screen-based activity. He is also into graphic novels, which do not translate well to a small, hand-held device!

  12. I thought the same when I saw that BBC headline, Litlove.

    20p e-book offers on Amazon are hard to resist, but I think appreciation of books as beautiful objects of desire is actually increasing in response to the e-book trend. Whether that appreciation converts into actual sales is another matter.

    For me, nothing beats the pleasure of possessing and consuming a ‘real’ book. E-books do have their place though. In my case, mainly under the bedcovers as an antidote for 4am insomnia!

    • Karen – you may well be right. In Heffers there is now a whole bay in the fiction area devoted to ‘beautifully produced’ books, all the penguin special editions and cloth-bound versions of classic novels and lots of truly sumptuous poetry collections and other anthologies. I hope they are selling! And I hope you don’t have to spend too many sleepless nights enjoying your ereader – although I’m glad it can be a companion at that hour!

  13. I’ve never understood why anyone — publishers, journalists, individuals — ever suggested that people have to choose between ebooks and print books. I am happy as a clam having both. I love having the option of ebooks from the library because I’m irrationally terrified of bedbugs in New York library books. And I also love having my physical books because I adore them and they are nice in bed before going to sleep.

    You know what trend I desperately hope happens as a result of ebooks? I hope and hope that people will begin to think more about books as physical objects, and spend time making awesome physical objects of more books. Not all of them. But some. Because if the market is forcing us to pay attention to the thing-ness of books anyway, it would be great to notice the thing-ness in unique, interesting ways. Where books come in boxes. God I’m a sucker for books in boxes.

    • I think the feeling was that books are so expensive to produce that it wouldn’t take a big shift of market share to tip the balance, so that ebooks would be the only commercially viable way for publishing to survive. However, now that ebooks are retailing so very, very cheap, I don’t think they can possibly be the solution to publishing’s problems. As a consumer and reader, no absolutely not – I’ve no idea why I would want to give up any of the media available. I hope very much like you that the book-as-object gets a boost from all this. Well, I don’t mind really what happens so long as more people read and value books. And oh yes, more boxed sets, please! :)

  14. I do like my e-reader, but like a lot of people, I don’t see it pulling me away from printed books. It’s nice for review copies, public domain classics, and library books. (Interestingly, if the library has an e-book version of a new book, it often becomes available before the print copy, which probably shows that interest in print is still greater even in my tech-savvy area.) I’m not likely to pay more than a few dollars for an e-book, yet I’m more than happy to pay $10 and more for print.

    I do feel bad for publishers trying to figure all this out (especially having dealt with some of these issues myself on the magazine end). I don’t know what the answer is for them regarding pricing and back catalogs and so on. But I think the whole death of print narrative is way overblown. I was at a publishing conference (for magazines) just this week, and one of the presenters said he’d been hearing “death of print” stories since he got into the business in the 80s. (I believe TV was killing print then.) But print survives, and I think it will continue to do so unless something legitimately better comes along.

    • Teresa, you are so right. The death of print has been heralded so many times – the paperback was to be the end of civilisation as we know it. Then TV and the home computer were going to prove to be the death of reading… and still we all struggle along, buying more books one way or another! It’s interesting that your perceptions of value are tied to separate media – that the cost of the ebook hasn’t influenced your sense of value for paper. I think publishers might be relieved to know that.

  15. I like my Kindle but I still much prefer reading print books. One of the advantages of an eReader in South Africa is that I can much more easily get non-mainstream books. However, lots of frustrations in this regard too since Amazon often doesn’t have the book that I want either. For example I’m interested in reading more by Australian authors such as Charlotte Wood and the Kindle store doesn’t stock her work.

    • That’s very interesting, Pete. I’d heard from other friends in SA and Australia that the kindle is very useful when the nearest book store is three hours away! But of course, not being able to get hold of the book you want in digital format takes the shine off that somewhat. I do hope for your sake that a bigger variety of ebooks becomes available (and I’m sure it will in time).

  16. This is an incredibly crafted argument – well done. Personally I have HAD it with technology and have drawn the line when it comes to e-books but if I could I’d draw the line with my blackberry. I want a real book, something I can hold in my hand, pages to turn – and it baffles me that so many people are so happy reading on e-readers! Now, I have read a couple of e-books but it is by no means a preference, at all. Your post makes the brilliant point that millions of dollars have been thrown at an unproven industry. Well done! Courtney

    • Aw thank you, Courtney! You are too kind. Sometimes I do feel that gadgets are taking over the world. And then I look at my dear husband, who has two blackberrys and I still can’t get hold of him because if he is doing anything other than sitting twiddling his thumbs in a silent office, he doesn’t notice them when they ring. Sigh. Human interface problems will continue to dog space age technology, I fear, and are completely unresolvable! :)

  17. I really enjoyed this and you’ve given me plenty to think about. Like Jenny – like you – I don’t see this as an either/or situation, and I don’t think bookbuyers behave in the same way anyway. If you buy three books a year, why would you buy an expensive electronic device on which to read them? If you live in a country without a reliable electricity supply, how would you charge your Kindle? If you live in a small flat with limited storage space, wouldn’t they be a godsend? I dislike reading on screen because I like to flip back and forth, and I find it annoying when I find a book is only available in e-format.

    I did hope that this would be a really great moment for publishing, and that it would encourage, as Jenny mentioned, an improvement in production values for physical books while giving many of us a handy new format for reading some if not all of our books. However, I am often horrified by the amount of vitriol directed against publishers by people on the internet. When you write about people increasingly expecting content for free, I think you put your finger on the reason for this. I do suspect that the market is beginning to bottom out, but I fear that over the next few years a large part of the book and newspaper world will be destroyed, many people will lose their jobs, and it will only be after quite a few more years that we will see what we have squandered and start to rebuild it.

    But I’m a pessimist! And I love to be pleasantly surprised. Let’s not forget the flourishing of such publishers as Persephone and Peirene, good reminders that it’s not all bad news.

    • Dear Helen, I am often horrified by the amount of vitriol on the internet per se. I do not think that technology brings out the best in human nature, even if we do marvel at all it can do for us. In a way, I do agree with you; we’re in the middle of a huge shake-up in publishing and it’s too early to know which way the chips will fall. However, there will inevitably be job losses, as the problem of overproduction of books has only been made worse by ereaders, and about a zillion frustrated unpublished authors. So a lot of it won’t be pretty. But you make an excellent call in mentioning Persephone and Peirene, because book lovers a) do love a beautiful product and b) that small audience for intriguing and unusual literature will stubbornly persist. Books have never been a huge and profitable market, it was only the madness of entertainment companies in the 80s that fantasised they might be. If we can get the whole world to stop chasing impossible profits, and settle down to less material greed and more interest in quality of life… oh wait a minute, what am I saying? Sorry, I lost myself in grandiose dreams there. What I do know for sure is that there will always be a persistent minority who love books and reading; we accept no substitutes! :)

  18. I found this giving me a pause, “The problem with the ebook is that it is fundamentally a gadget, not a significant technological improvement in the act of reading.” Quite true now that I think about it.

    I can see where you’re coming from but I have to admit I love my Kindle. I’ve found myself reading much more with the Kindle around – something about it being easier to switch back and forth between different stories. And now that I think of it my paperback purchase has also gone down drastically (other than using giftcards for paperback purchase and the books I end up borrowing).

    I also have to admit that I felt very strongly against e-readers for quite a while but once I got one and started using it the ease of the experience (looking up a word I don’t know at the click of a finger, ease of searching through the text, highlighting something that stood out for me and being able to access it with one click) crept up on me insidiously till suddenly one day I realized I’d moved over fair and square to the Dark Side. :)

    I do not think that all this spells the end of paper books though. I haven’t thought through this completely but the way I look at it the act of reading is a solitary experience and the whole digitalization of books makes it more so perhaps. Somewhere I see paper books making the whole reading experience more communal through book stores and libraries and the passing of one copy from one generation to another.

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  21. I am a semi-retired librarian and I love physical books, and I love reading on my Kindle. I love that when I travel, I can take hundreds of books with me and have many choices of what to read, no matter what mood I am in. O.K. Call me a glutton.

    I love waking up on a cold morning and being able to stay in my bed with the covers up to my chin and still read and turn pages. I can knit without looking and love the speed of page turns when I knit and read, vs the need to put down the knitting, pick up the book, turn the page, then pick the knitting back up, to resume my multi-tasking. Love it!

    There was a big power outage of some hours about a year ago. I just climbed into bed and read my book on my Kindle (I do have a cover with a built-in light) for 6 hours until bedtime.

    I don’t really think that publishers like ebooks at all. If they liked them, they would not price them at prices often higher than physical books. They don’t really want to change their business model. Because ebooks have been so popular, though, they have little choice but to be in the game. But it has certainly not been without a lot of kicking and screaming.

    I do like being able to give away, trade, re-sell physical books, but I am happy that it is not a zero sum game: I can have ebooks AND physical books of my choosing.

    Some books need to be in physical form, like art, knitting, etc. But I am in the process of getting rid of as many of my text-only books as possible. I need the space and I have really reached the point where I prefer reading on my Kindle.

    I like being able to highlight passages I want to remember, and even make notes that stay with the book on the Kindle, and are easy to retrieve.

    Recently I read Cloud Atlas and really appreciated having the dictionary lookup accessible with a couple of button presses because that book is full of all sorts of archaic vocabulary! With a physical book, I am way too lazy to do that amount of digging in a dictionary!

    Considering the waste of resources of so many books being printed only to end up in landfills, I think it is great that we live in a world where that will be forced to change.

    I do know folks who are afraid of their ereaders, but there were once people who preferred their horses to cars, but that all eventually changed, at least for many. I think that the entire industry is transforming in exciting ways, some of which will include ebooks, some of which won’t, like more print-on-demand, I imagine.

    I think these are exciting times for publishing, at least from the p.o.v. of a consumer/reader!

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