Monday, January 31, 2011


"There really is nothing like opening a book. The smell of the ink and the paper. And the idea that the words inside are somehow immortal because there they are, right in front of you, completely tangible in book form."
-Mandy P.

From the perspective of an online bookseller, selling e-books, or electronic downloads of a book instead of the actual physical copy is always the more attractive option. There's no shipping cost, no labor, and you don't have to buy an actual copy of the book to sell. No inventory space is taken up, and best of all, e-readers break down and temporary licensing means people have to get the book the bought again if they want to keep it. That all translates into more profit for the book seller.

So when Amazon announced that they'd sold more e-books than actual hardcover books in July, that was something significant for online book sellers. And most recently, Amazon just announced that since the beginning of the year, they've sold 15% more e-books than paperbacks. Now, granted, Amazon pushes the e-books more than paperbacks, they're cheaper and thus more attractive, and Amazon customers are more likely to have an e-reader than, say, customers at ABE Books. Still this is a sort of milestone.

For me its a grim milestone, a sad point in our history. I love books, I love to own them and look at them and hold them and read them. They are like friends I can always call on, some familiar and some new. They are weighty and have physical presence, they have age and history and tradition. E-Readers may be convenient but they lack the rich heritage of books and have their drawbacks. Yet I can see a day very soon when books will be very expensive to buy and harder to get, with most reading material on e-readers, and much of it only available electronically.

I can see a day coming soon when paperbacks will just vanish entirely, when you'll only be able to get special edition, very expensive hard cover versions of books. They'll still be out there, but they won't be on shelves in rows like we have today. I see a day coming when book stores will be shutting down, and used book stores will become more and more expensive. Instead of being old beat up versions of good books, they will be "classics" and "antiques," specialty items instead of used items.

And there are genuine concerns here. A book is much more permanent than an electronic file. Those can be edited easily and cheaply without the slightest trace of change. Consider the recent decision to release Tom Sawyer without the words PC folks dislike in them; consider the tendency of really political types to want to censor and delete their enemies' words. Giving people the power to change your books (and they have in the past) when you download them is something not available to books.

Another problem is piracy. Its really tough to copy a whole book, its often more expensive than just buying one. But copying someone's pdf file or distributing it online for free in electronic form? No problem. Suddenly an entirely new media form becomes prey to online pirates, and authors suffer even more.

Also doomed are remainders. These are the overstocks from publishers, who produced more of a book than they were able to move, and sell them for deep discounts. I've bought a lot of books this way, but the days of printing a lot of books and hoping they sell are coming to an end.

So I'm glad I have as many books as I do, and while I nod to the cheaper convenience of the e-reader, I am sad to see it gain preeminence in people's buying preferences at any level.

Hat tip to Ace of Spades HQ for this story. An author there posted this comment:
I have been a science fiction writer for more than 30 years, publishing my first work in 1979. I spent 15 of those years with Ballantine-Del Rey and sold a total of about 250,000 books. Good, but not spectacular. In 1995, I went into business for myself and developed both a website and a home-based book manufacturing capability. My website is, I believe, the oldest author owned/operated bookstore on the web, simply because the one that preceded me seems to have gone belly up.

I have been predicting the end of the paper book since I first went online, but this is the first year it has looked like it is coming to pass. My site sales, which four years ago were 50-50 trade paperback - ebook, at the moment are 10% trade paperback and 90 percent ebook.

Moreover, I put twelve novels and a book of short stories on Kindle in May of last year. Sales started slow, but grew. Then they began to take off. My December sales for the first four weeks of the month were 30% larger than they had been in November. On Christmas day, they doubled and stayed that way for the whole week. This is a tangible indication of just how many Kindles were unwrapped under the Christmas tree. They fell back a bit in January, but are still running 50% ahead of early December and show signs of slowly rising as the month goes on.

The question, of course, is whether this is sustainable. I don't know. Theoretically, I should sell a fixed (microscopic) percentage of the installed base and as the base rises, so will sales.

Also, I have my books at IPAD, Barnes and Noble, etc. I haven't gotten enough sales reports to tell about those markets yet, but the principle should hold for them as well.

What I see here is a return to the last days of the typewriter. When the screen resolutions and contrast get ever closer to paper and the ereaders can hold 3500 books, the end of the paper book would appear to be inevitable, which will be a sad day for those of us who love them.

Of course, since Kindle and Apple pay the authors 70% of the cover price (versus 6-8% for the traditional publishers), I guess we'll just have to learn to live with our sadness.
-Michael McCollum

1 comment:

canvas print said...

I'm still a fan of having a book in my hand than a e-book reader, what do you do if you lose / break it? You've all your books till you get a new one...can't beat it.