The rise of the eBook is a profound change in our culture

The Association of American Publishers has announced that in February 2011 ebooks ranked above print in all trade categories. Note that these figures are for the USA, and that in revenue ebooks are well behind print – $164.1M vs $441.7M. It is also worth noting that print sales are falling fast, 24.8% year on year, whereas ebooks are growing fast, 202.3% year on year.

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This does sound like a reprise of what has happened in the music industry, where broadly speaking physical formats are heading toward obsolescence, download is growing, but the overall pie is smaller because of the ease of piracy. There is perhaps another more subtle point, that when the marginal cost of production is near zero, prices too tend to race to the bottom in a competitive market.

Books are not equivalent to music. Physical books still have advantages. They have zero battery requirements, work well in sunlight, some have beautiful pictures, you can write on them and fold back the corner of a page, and so  on. There are more advantages to ebooks though, in cost, weight, searchability, interactivity, and freedom from the constraints of a printed page. Years ago I was in the book publishing industry, and convinced that ebooks would take off much sooner than in fact they did. Much money was wasted in the light of false dawns. I remember – though it was long after I was involved – how some booksellers invested in Microsoft’s .lit format, readable on PCs and Pocket PCs, only to discover that there was little market for it.

What changed? It was no single thing; but factors include the advent of high-contrast screens that are both low-power and readable outside; the appearance of dedicated tablet-style readers that are lightweight but with book-sized screens; the marketing muscle of Amazon with the Kindle and Apple with the iPad – though the iPad screen is sub-optimal for reading – and some mysterious change in public perception that caused ebooks to transition from niche to mainstream.

Books are not going away of course, just as CDs and even vinyl records are still with us. I think though we can expect more high street closures, and libraries wondering what exactly their role is meant to be, and that the publishing industry is going to struggle with this transition just as the music industry has done. Ebook growth will continue, and as Amazon battles its rivals we will see the price of the Kindle fall further. Apple will lock its community more tightly to iTunes, as its policy on forbidding in-app purchases that do not go through its own App Store and pay the Apple tax plays out.

That is all incidental. What I am struggling to put into words is what the decline of the printed word means for our culture. You can argue that it is merely a symptom of what the internet has brought us, which is true in its way; but it is a particularly tangible symptom. No longer will you be able to go into someone’s room and see clues about their interests and abilities by glancing at bookshelves.

I am on a train, and by one of life’s strange synergies someone has just sat down next to me and pulled out a Kindle.

I do not mean to be negative. Much though I love books, there are now better ways to store and read words, and while the printed word may be in decline, the written word has never been more popular. I am in no doubt though that this is a profound change.

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