Books

What’s the Matter with Ebooks?

[As you may have noticed, I haven’t posted to this blog for over a year. I’ve been extraordinarily busy with my new job. But I’m going to make a small effort to reinvigorate this space, adding my thoughts on evolving issues that I’d like to explore without those thoughts being improperly attributed to the Digital Public Library of America. This remains my personal blog, and you should consider these my personal views. I will also be continuing to post on DPLA’s blog, as I have done on this topic of ebooks.]

Over the past two years I’ve been tracking ebook adoption, and the statistics are, frankly, perplexing. After Amazon released the Kindle in 2007, there was a rapid growth in ebook sales and readership, and the iPad’s launch three years later only accelerated the trend.

Then something odd happened. By most media accounts, ebook adoption has plateaued at about a third of the overall book market, and this stall has lasted for over a year now. Some are therefore taking it as a Permanent Law of Reading: There will be electronic books, but there will always be more physical books. Long live print!

I read both e- and print books, and I appreciate the arguments about the native advantages of print. I am a digital subscriber to the New York Times, but every Sunday I also get the printed version. The paper feels expansive, luxuriant. And I do read more of it than the daily paper on my iPad, as many articles catch my eye and the flipping of pages requires me to confront pieces that I might not choose to read based on a square inch of blue-tinged screen. (Also, it’s Sunday. I have more time to read.) Even though I read more ebooks than printed ones at this point, it’s hard not to listen to the heart and join the Permanent Law chorus.

But my mind can’t help but disagree with my heart. Yours should too if you run through a simple mental exercise: jump forward 10 or 20 or 50 years, and you should have a hard time saying that the e-reading technology won’t be much better—perhaps even indistinguishable from print, and that adoption will be widespread. Even today, studies have shown that libraries that have training sessions for patrons with iPads and Kindles see the use of ebooks skyrocket—highlighting that the problem is in part that today’s devices and ebook services are hard to use. Availability of titles, pricing (compared to paperback), DRM, and a balkanization of ebook platforms and devices all dampen adoption as well.

But even the editor of the New York Times understands the changes ahead, despite his love for print:

How long will print be around? At a Loyola University gathering in New Orleans last week, the executive editor [of the Times], Dean Baquet, noted that he “has as much of a romance with print as anyone.” But he also admitted, according to a Times-Picayune report, that “no one thinks there will be a lot of print around in 40 years.”

Forty years is a long time, of course—although it is a short time in the history of the book. The big question is when the changeover will occur—next year, in five years, in Baquet’s 2055?

The tea leaves, even now, are hard to read, but I’ve come to believe that part of this cloudiness is because there’s much more dark reading going on than the stats are showing. Like dark matter, dark reading is the consumption of (e)books that somehow isn’t captured by current forms of measurement.

For instance, usually when you hear about the plateauing of ebook sales, you are actually hearing about the sales of ebooks from major publishers in relation to the sales of print books from those same publishers. That’s a crucial qualification. But sales of ebooks from these publishers is just a fraction of overall e-reading. By other accounts, which try to shine light on ebook adoption by looking at markets like Amazon (which accounts for a scary two-thirds of ebook sales), show that a huge and growing percentage of ebooks are being sold by indie publishers or authors themselves rather than the bigs, and a third of them don’t even have ISBNs, the universal ID used to track most books.

The commercial statistics also fail to account for free e-reading, such as from public libraries, which continues to grow apace. The Digital Public Library of America and other sites and apps have millions of open ebooks, which are never chalked up as a sale.

Similarly, while surveys of the young continue to show their devotion to paper, yet other studies have shown that about half of those under 30 read an ebook in 2013, up from a quarter of Millennials in 2011—and that study is already dated. Indeed, most of the studies that highlight our love for print over digital are several years old (or more) at this point, a period in which large-format, high-resolution smartphone adoption (much better for reading) and new all-you-can-read ebook services, such as Oyster, Scribd, and Kindle Unlimited, have emerged. Nineteen percent of Millennials have already subscribed to one of these services, a number considered low by the American Press Institute, but which strikes me as remarkably high, and yet another contributing factor to the dark reading mystery.

I’m a historian, not a futurist, but I suspect that we’re not going to have to wait anywhere near forty years for ebooks to become predominant, and that the “plateau” is in part a mirage. That may cause some hand-wringing among book traditionalists, an emotion that is understandable: books are treasured artifacts of human expression. But in our praise for print we forget the great virtues of digital formats, especially the ease of distribution and greater access for all—if done right.

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