The book is dead?


The death knell of the book made from dead trees may have been premature, according to figures which keep being bandied around various media. For a long time the inexorable rise of the electronic book seemed to spell doom for the traditional tome: the demise of Borders was supposed to be a foretaste of worst to come, along with the closure of numerous bookshops both in the Old World as well as in the New. But is the situation changing? The Guardian recently reported that “Total spending on print and electronic books increased by 4% to £2.2bn in 2014, according to market data firm Nielsen,” with e-books now accounting for “around 30% of all books published, including almost 50% of adult fiction”. But, it continues, “the decline in print is levelling off as migration to ebooks declines. For some in the industry, it is a sign the dust is beginning to settle after the great digital shake-up.”

Yet more recently The New York Times confirmed that e-book sales “fell by 10 percent in the first five months of this year, according to the Association of American Publishers, which collects data from nearly 1,200 publishers. Digital books accounted last year for around 20 percent of the market, roughly the same as they did a few years ago.”

The digital book industry had declared any prophesied demise was all smoke and mirrors: while e-book sales growth flattened during 2013, “it’s almost certain to continue its upswing – sooner or later. Parents are turning their children into ebook readers at an increasing clip. More parents intend to buy their kids ebooks and e-reading devices this holiday season versus last year,” according to Digital Book World‘s own research. “So, while various short-term factors may mean that ebook sales growth in the U.S. is halted for now, it’s only a matter of time before those digital native kids grow up and become adult readers.”

But that was in 2013; two years later the continued upswing has apparently not happened. As a confirmed bibliophile I’m not one to crow: right now I’m using the technology that allows you to read electronic text on my blog, and of course I shall be reading a fair few of your electronic posts (on, granted, a laptop or mobile phone rather than a dedicated e-reader). It’s just that I haven’t developed the habit of reading books on a screen.

Don’t get me wrong: I do have a Kindle, a present from my son and daughter-in-law. I have persevered in trying to commit to books I’ve downloaded. But the experience isn’t the same. Much of it is down to the fact that I’m conditioned to seeing an interactive screen as something from which to hop around various digital platforms; I’ve developed a grasshopper mind where I’m worried that I may be missing something more current on a different app, that breaking news elsewhere needs my attention. Is it just me, or do others also worry that something more important is happening on an electronic page they’re not currently viewing?

So it is with the e-reader. And there’s more. I relish the physicality, the sensuality of the ‘real’ book. Us bibliophiles know the delights of feeling texture and weight, seeing varied typefaces and illustrations, smelling the presence of books, hearing the rustle of pages as they’re turned. With an e-book-only library my bookshelves would be redundant, the walls would look naked, visitors would not be able to browse through titles that caught their fancy, my memory of the author or title or category of a particular book wouldn’t be supplemented by a visual recall of where it resided in a physical space.

So, I’m not crowing too loudly about the slowdown on e-books* — there must always be a place for this technology for those who prize it — but I must and will shout to the rooftops at any claimed evidence that traditional books are in any way defunct. The book is dead? Long live the book!

  • Ebooks or e-books? Which do you prefer? ‘Ebook’ on the analogy with email? Or ‘e-book’ because it somehow looks less wrong?

38 thoughts on “The book is dead?

  1. Fiction has to be in print every time I think. I generally get non-fiction cheaply on kindle first and then, if it merits a re-read or proper study, I order it in print as well. I can’t focus properly on my phone screen but it’s very useful for skim-reading.

    1. I agree that small screens are great for skim-reading, sampling the flavour of a text and all the rest. With non-fiction I would certainly miss the physicality of constant checking on facts and references that access to several books allows and which I’m not sure is easy or maybe even possible on an ereader.

  2. I don’t have an e-reader, so every novel I read is papery. I don’t have anything against e-readers as a general concept – as long as people keep reading, that’s the main thing! I can see how useful kindles are – I have friends whose son is an avid reader and they take their’s to save taking a pile of books.
    I don’t think I’ll change, unless someone buys a kindle for me. I just like having books around, a stack of them next to the bed – not the same as having files on an electronic device

    1. “As long as people keep on reading” is key, I suppose to this whole debate, Lynn. I hope I’m no Luddite — I did give my Kindle a chance — but maybe, just as walking survived the advent of the bicycle, and the bicycle the advent of the car, the different modes of reading can happily co-exist without one or the other rendered extinct.

      There’s a striking cartoon I remember (online, probably) of somebody sitting in their library. They reach out to pick up … an ereader. The bookshelves are otherwise … empty.

      I suppose the ereader might usefully free up a room for some other purpose. I’m not sure I want to survive to witness that.

      1. Yes, I suppose it’s stupidly old fashioned, but I can’t imagine what I’d fill my walls with if I didn’t have paper books anymore. I like to see them there, even if I know I’m not going to read them again. I’m a bit possessive over books I think. I leant a friend a copy of ‘Beyond Black’ by Hilary Mantel and later found out she’d leant it to someone else ‘because that’s what books are for isn’t it?’ Never got the book back and though I might never have read it again, I still feel slightly irritated by its absence – one that got away 🙂

        1. Oooh, people who are cavalier with your books! What kind of friends are those? I’ve resolved never to lend books again: either they’re given away or they stay with me — can’t be doing with adopting a logging out of lent books, as in a library, that I’ve read some have set up to deal with this issue.

          1. Being the daft, wishy washy twerp I am, I never aired my shock when she gave the book away. I suppose part of me agreed with the ‘sharing wonderful books’ idea (Though I suspect it’s easier to ‘share wonderful books’ when they aren’t yours). It’s a shame, as I’ve had a couple of books since I’m sure she’d like and I haven’t leant them to her for fear the next one might have the same fate!
            Now, a logging system – that’s a good idea. I did always want to work in a library – I could just set up my own!

  3. E-books are ephemeral in my experience, which is both their advantage and drawback. They are fantastic for traveling — I took a huge virtual stack to Switzerland which I could never have fit in my luggage. And I think they’re great for saving paper on pulpy fiction and news material that one would throw away after reading anyhow. But for more considered reading that I need to remember, I prefer paper. I need to be able to page back and forth easily, or look at two pages simultaneously. And the words just seem to stick in my mind better.

    1. I agree absolutely with every word you say, Lory. Ephemeral is right — news and gossip is quickly superceded and its archive easily accessed on ekectronic media — but things that stand the test of time need to be treated in a more considered and considerate manner.

  4. Reluctantly I have “e” volved into “e” book land. Since my novel will soon (SINK RATE due out in October) come out as an ebook I have learned to adapt and overcome supporting my fellow digital authors in electron world. Here’s to a surge in the market hopefully dragging me along.

    1. This is an aspect I should have touched on, even in a short post like this, so I’m glad that you’ve brought it to our attention, Mike. E-publishing has certainly allowed new authors to access markets they could only dream of in times past; I would be the last to denigrate the opportunities afforded by it as I have friends and family who have successfully travelled this road. Good luck with Sink Rate for it debut and for its future!

  5. I do love reading on my ereader, and passionately advocate for ereaders for convenience and accessibility. But I also have a big dead tree collection. I think people often use both, depending on what they need at the time.

    1. Horses for courses, as you put it so well, Nikki — I know your rate of rattling through books far surpasses mine (with no loss of understanding or insight, I may add) and electronic media suit your purposes and modus operandi like a glove. I only wish I had your stamina and voraciousness where books are concerned and maybe I’d learn to adapt to innovating technologies.

  6. I guess I’m one of those who loves both! 🙂

    I love the convenience of e-books: the ability to look up a word right then, and there, and the ability to highlight and put notes anywhere I want (something which I cannot bring myself to do to a paper book).

    And of course, paper books with their tactility, and their physicality, and their heft in my hands feel really, really good too! I’m especially partial to the paper books for poetry, and non-fiction.

    1. There’s certainly room for both, and there are definite advantages to paperless books which avoid physically defacing the pages. But I’d certainly prefer non-fiction to be paper.

    1. Now here’s a mischievous question we might find difficult to answer, Stefy: are those who prefer electronic readers less sensual than those who stick to traditional books? I only ask!

  7. As Samuel Clemens wrote, ‘The report of my death is an exaggeration.’ Books can share that quote, which is a pity in a way because that means the demand for wood pulp continues, and so does the evil of plantations.

      1. Trouble is that, in our county at least, most plantations have taken the place of indigenous forest. The ‘commercial’ trees grow too fast and root too deeply, lower the water table, displace local fauna and flora, and deplete riverine flow in catchment areas.

        1. Sadly I can well believe it. There seems little ethical wriggle-room in any of the choices we are offered, even simply existing is another brick in the wall of global over-population. 😦

          1. The complete solution, of 100% mass suicide, is indeed unlikely to find much favour. People have this strange idea that if there is a perfect ecology they should still be around to enjoy it.

  8. P.S. I was doing some research today on the most popular formats for print novels. It is amazing how many different styles are favoured. For example, bottom centre page numbers seem the most popular, but outside top or bottom are common (I like outside bottom, for mine).
    One book even had them top inside! I wonder if that was a printing error.
    Anyway, the point is that it struck me how much I am influenced by such things – and that doesn’t happen at all with an e-book.

    1. And illustrations too — do e-readers have adequate provision for picture books and science texts with diagrams and art books with full colour illustrations? My basic Kindle supports no pictures at all, so fine for most fiction but not in any way ideal.

      1. Good point. The new Kindle ‘Fire’ series is able to handle ‘fixed layout’ format books with graphics, so can cope with Picture books etc. I know because I published one like that, but it’s a fairly limited potential audience because of the technical limitation you mention. I am in the unusual (and perhaps hypocritical) position of being someone who does not possess a kindle and has never read an ebook but HAS published one. Why? Because of the freedom it offers you as a writer/illustrator. Traditional publishing is in crisis. More than ever traditional publishers have to go for the sure bet (and sometimes even use the ebook market as a testing ground for more experimental books that they later snap up if they demonstrate good sales). As someone who likes to read print books, I do think this is sad, but artistically the opportunity that ebooks represent is unprecedented. TOTAL artistic freedom at virtually no cost (with virtually no readers – ha ha ha ha). Actually maybe things haven’t changed all that much – back in the eighteenth century William Blake was producing his own illustrated books without any involvement of publishers – and almost noone was reading them then either!

        1. All good, nay, excellent points. On your last we mustn’t forget the 19th-century practice of serial-publishing a novel in magazines (famously employed by Dickens and many others) before the novel’s appearance in hardback. And that ‘taster’ approach has continued today in condensed versions, extracts or outright serialisation being made available in newspapers and magazines as well as through self-publishing, electronically or online, anything, in fact, to get the longer novel ‘out there’.

          1. Absolutely. I’ve been thinking about those parallels too, and hoping that the electronic publishing revolution, while encouraging the proliferation of amateur efforts, might also make a more innovative approach to format more affordable. I recently read a book entitled ‘Poetry, Pictures and Popular Publishing’ by Lorraine Kooistra which describes the golden era (roughly 1855 to 1875) of the Illustrated Gift Book, when art work and poetry were given equal importance, and the resulting product was highly successful. Since then, illustration has become associated with literature for the young (and I suppose the moving picture and all the technology that followed played a big role in the segregation of words and pictures on the page – film being a wonderful collaboration of art forms in itself). I digress!

            1. A huge subject, deserving of several learned studies and myriads of insightful discourses! Perhaps a future post or two from either you or me may set the ball rolling …

    1. Interesting factual article, Lizzie, and one which helps put one set of statistics into its larger context.
      Interesting choice of stock photo for the ebook illustration: the virtual turning of a digital page. You may have seen lots of uPVC windows and doors in historic UK building stock, all imitating traditional examples which would have been made in wood once upon a time. Plastic portals are so ubiquitous now that many houseowners now see them as ‘traditonal’, the norm. Why can’t manufacturers come up with new designs for the 21st century?

      And then why do e-readers have to slavishly imitate real books? Oldtimers won’t be fooled, but upcoming generations may possibly have no idea that once you could turn real pages, in real books. Be innovative, manufacturers!

  9. Not all parents are turning their kids into ebook readers, my kids read real books, some of which are my mothers from when she was a child, which makes them anout 60 yrs old. There is nothing nicer than picking up a dog eared book someplace and reading it, being another owner in the book’s history. Seeing where previous readers had turned down the corner at a break in the story. I’m glad the prophecies of the death of books has not turned real.

  10. I read a mix of both. I turned to e-books when I found myself needing reading glasses. For a while I was able to read sans glasses on my iPad, but I noticed I stuck to fiction. It was rare to see me read a non-fiction e-book. Even rarer was my desire to spend more than a few dollars to own a virtual book.
    Now that my eyes demand I always wear reading glasses I am not so drawn to my iPad. I use it mostly for those times I know I will be kept waiting; doctor’s office etc.
    There was a yet another report, not long ago that shows a continued decline in e-book sales. The article insists it has nothing to do with price, but I really have to wonder. It seems to me that ever since e-books topped the ten dollar mark, they lost their wide appeal. The article suggested that e-books are declining because e-readers (devices for just reading) are being replaced with devices that offer multiple functionality and reading is being replaced with games and videos.
    Who knows what the cause(s) may be. I just hope that the effect means that small bookstores make a comeback and larger chains once again start offering a wide variety of print and stop offering stacks of just the “best” sellers.

    Long live books!

  11. I’m a little bit late responding to your comment, Sari, sorry. You’re right, it’s different horses for different courses; what we want is diversity, not a market dominated by one aggressor to the detriment, even extinction, of all others. Amen to ‘Long live books!’ — long may they reign!

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