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?