That Tug Of War Over Your Book Fetish


On the way out, you stop by the machine and swipe the credit card…Some more robotic whirrings, and then the book you ordered slides down a chute. You pop it into your purse (I’m using myself as an example here) and off you go.

That’s author Hugh Howey with the kind of talk that makes some people in the industry! the industry! wish he’d go to hell in that handbag.

Then again, you’d think even the more traditional publishing pinstripers (as many folks imagine them) headed to London Book Fair would be happy. Howey opens his essay RedBoox—Break, Milk, Bestseller with these lines:

Print books will never go away. Not completely. It isn’t just the nostalgia factor, either. Paper is cheap, and despite what shopping for replacement cartridges would suggest, ink isn’t expensive either.

Shouldn’t such reassurance about physical books warm the cockles of folks like Tim Waterstone? He’s the guy who told the Oxford Literary Festival last week that they’re not to worry: ebooks are “already in decline” in the States.

Did you know that ebooks are in decline in America? Neither did I.

Waterstone is the founder of Waterstones, a UK bookstore chain facing the challenges that US bookstores have encountered. So Waterstone would want to think that ebooks are “in decline,” wouldn’t he? He’s into bricks and mortar, stores you walk into, ink on paper, paper at the cash register, customers take ’em home.

But then why might Waterstone not want that firebrand Howey to come sit next to him in London next week when Howey is speaking at the Publishing for Digital Minds confab (follow us at #DigiConf14) and other events?

And Latte Bookmarks

Howey is talking about another kind of physical book. It’s pretty much an ebook until it hits the Espresso Book Machine.

Don’t look at me. I would have told them not to name a super-fast in-store printer-and-binder the same thing as a contraption that can steam milk. Did they ask me? They did not. Call it what you will, these are printed books but not from a publisher’s warehouse and distribution supply chain…and therein lies the problem:

A lot of people in publishing—even some who read almost nothing but ebooks but don’t want to admit that—are in this pointless tug of war and they can’t, can’t, just can’t let go of the rope.

Did we throw over email and go back to envelopes and stamps? No. And we’re not going to see ebooks go into “a decline” and evaporate on us, either.

eReading is not just a silly fad. eBooks and other electronic, networked book-forms are a commercial force and eventually will come into their own and, perhaps, become the standard, without ever needing to kill off print books.

Progress is like that. It progresses.

Indeed, here’s an interesting take on what ebooks really are:

Ebooks: “Not A Product…A Reader Service”

Our friends at Digital Book World (DBW) wrote up part of the Copyright Clearance Center’s OnCopyright Conference from this week. In Content Pricing Consultant: eBooks Should Be (Much) More Expensive, DBW tells us that Frank Luby pitched an interesting case for raising the prices of ebooks. They’ve quoted Luby this way:

“eBooks should be more expensive than they are, more than print books — a lot more,” said Luby, adding that ebooks are relatively cheap because publishers and retailers don’t properly explain their benefits, namely, convenience.

You don’t have to get into the tube and go Mr. Waterstone’s store to get your books. They come to you, as Amazon’s Bezosian Beelzebub keeps reminding us, “in under a minute,” right to your Kindle Fire HD. This, Luby says, is exactly the service that you and I know it is. No gas for the car, no wait in line for the cash register, no tiresome book-related merchandise (those ice chests with “Dickens Was a Serial Thriller!” on them). No, just you, the marvels of technology, thin air filled with Seattle’s Whispersync and, boom, your book is ready to read, right where you are, on the beach, Nevil, now.

I agree with Luby. That’s a service. I also agree with Luby that ebook prices should be higher. Much higher. But I say that’s not only because they’re a service but also because we need to get book prices out of the basement and start reminding readers that years of an author’s life are worth more than what you pay for that cappuccino Howey’s machine is working on.

DBW’s weekly look at a list of Top-25-selling ebooks in the US market this week (Nora Roberts vs. Veronica Roth) sees the average price of one of those things at $6.42. You go tell Tolstoy that War and Peace is worth $6.42 and come back and tell me what he said, okay?

Nevertheless, let’s put the price issue aside for now.

Let’s look at why Mr. Waterstone was getting out those pompoms because of this supposed “decline” of ebooks in the US of A, shall we? It turns out, there was a little something to what he was saying. Another tug on the rope.

American Publishers And Their Calculators

The Association of American Publishers (“AAP” to your bookly neighbors) periodically asks its 1,211 member-publishers to report on their sales. All this data on the US book market goes into something compiled as StatShot. Did I mention cutesy names? SnapSnot then offers us a way to see some of the commercial action in book sales. Only some. Because guess who’s not reporting: the big retailers like Amazon, Apple, B&N…that’s another article.

But okay, we’ll take StatShot and I’m pretty damned grateful to have even this much in the way of numbers. It won’t tell the same story that Howey’s will. But at this point, any look at the books is helpful. Seriously. Thank you, AAP.

The organization moved out its 2013 numbers this week. On they whole, AAP tells us, US book publishing did 1% (yes, one percent) better in 2013 than it did in 2012. Here is Jim Milliot’s report on it at Publishers Weekly.

This is actually good news. Because in 2012, people got very turned on to Fifty Shades of Grey and some more Sunday School literature, The Hunger Games. These were anomalies, books that sold lots more than even blockbusters usually sell. So it’s actually good news that the US publishing industry could get out of 2013 with 1% more shirt on its back, having no Grey Games to turn the big penny.

But these ebooks. What about them?

Well, the reason Mr. Waterstone was chuffed is that ebooks suffered a setback (eureka!) in America for the first time since the publishers have reported to the StatShot gauge. How much did ebooks go down? About 2% in AAP trade sales. And ebooks actually gained a few percentage points in the adult book divisions to reach 27% of those sales. They suffered a downturn only in children’s and young-adult (YA) literature. (Because no Hunger Games.)

Therefore, you can spin things in favor of both E-ville and Tradtown.

If you’re a traditional publisher (or a seller of those books like Mr. Waterstone), you’re feeling pretty good that the once-torrid growth of ebooks in the flagship US market is doing what happens to all things bright and shiny in our economy eventually: the rate is slowing down. Like those hot devices you once waited on the sidewalk overnight to buy and now wouldn’t walk across the street for. Right? The first adopters of ebooks as a “new” thing have played through. They’ve settled in, adjusted the brightness on their e-readers, and are doing just fine. But they’re no longer multiplying like bunnies. Unless, of course, E.L. James decides to visit Fifty more Shades upon us. It could happen.

If you’re an ebook fan (and you might also be a traditional publisher, shhh), then you’re feeling pretty happy that ebooks didn’t suffer an even bigger hit after the slings and arrows of Suzanne Collins’ outrageous fortune had made “Katniss” a household term. Did I mention cutesy…? Never mind.

Twenty-one percent (21%) is the chunk of the US market that the AAP’s StatShot tells us was held by ebooks at the end of 2013. More than a quarter, 27 percent of adult trade books, 11 percent of kids’ books. And that’s without Amazon, iBooks, etc. factored in, as we mentioned.

So why does all this ebook-vs.-print book business rile up people, anyway?

Tug of Fetishes

Change stinks. We don’t like it. We know this. And that’s part of the reason the ebook-vs.-print thing just never seems to die. As the British novelist Nick Harkaway said last week, it’s an exhausted debate. That hasn’t stopped the exhausted from debating.

A lot of folks have something that sure looks like a fetish about books. They hold physical books to be little short of sacred. It may not matter what’s in them, either. Just books. Any books, as long as they’re physical paperback or hardcover books. In our #EtherIssue chat this week at Publishing Perspectives, one reader wanted to know if we should even call ebooks “books.” Maybe an ebook isn’t good enough for the holy term.

I know where some of this comes from. When I was a kid, I was taught never to damage a book. Were you? I was instructed that a book could not be left outside where dew might wet it; nor left open so that the spine might break; nor be tossed onto a table…we treated the American flag with the utmost respect and books were a close second. So I do get some of the homage here, I understand.

But as Howey tells us, ebooks don’t mean the end of print. This tug of war is completely needless. These print-on-demand coffee makers will do the job. As he writes:

There’s room for growth in the reading community, and print on demand offers the ability to put bookstores into very small footprints.

So if the portability of ebooks doesn’t interest you; if instant purchase and reading doesn’t make you sit up; if free samples of books before you buy don’t float your boat; if far more choice and far easier discovery (you can search by keywords) doesn’t do it for you; if saving trees and avoiding smelly paper mills doesn’t get you going; and if having your book glow for you in the dark as you read with You Know Who asleep beside you in bed isn’t a positive experience for you, then, hey, by all means, skip ebooks and I’ll forgive you.

It truly never has to be either-or. We can put down the rope.

But before you waltz off with Waterstone over the “decline” in ebooks because the US pace slows naturally by just a little in one year?—I give you two dates:

(1) The printing press was in busy operation in many parts of Western Europe by the year 1500.

(2) The ebook became a viable product in 2007 when Amazon put its Kindle into our hands for the first time.

So 500 years for print. Seven years for digital. In just seven years, digital has captured what the AAP sees as more than 20 percent of the American market. I call that fast, not slow, coming on, not declining. I call that our futurebook.

And Mr. Waterstone, if you need a book made out of paper to read, check Howey’s purse at the London Book Fair. He told me he’ll have something you can borrow. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

Porter Anderson / @Porter_Anderson is a journalist focused on books and the industry! the industry! of publishing.

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