In the past 12 months, I’ve never bought fewer printed books – and I’ve never read so many books. I have switched to ebooks. My personal library is with me at all times, in my iPad and my iPhone (and in the cloud), allowing me to switch reading devices as conditions dictate. I also own a Kindle, I use it mostly during summer, to read in broad daylight: an iPad won’t work on a sunny cafe terrace.
I’m an ebook convert. Not by ideology (I love dead-tree books, and I enjoy giving those to friends and family), just pragmatism. Ebooks are great for impulse buying. Let’s say I read a story in a magazine and find the author particularly brilliant, or want to drill further down into the subject thanks to a pointer to nicely rated book, I cut and paste the reference in the Amazon Kindle store or in the Apple’s iBooks store and, one-click™ later, the book is mine. Most of the time, it’s much cheaper than the print version (especially in the case of imported books).
In the past, the writer-publisher-library-reader model had a modicum of equanimity. It is now obvious that the nature of the technology — the printed book — largely regulated that equanimity. All of us in the reading ecology — librarians, authors, repackagers, readers — are tied to the tracks by the Brobdingnagian power wielded by the highly consolidated publisher-industrial complex that is then magnified a thousand-fold by the conveniently elastic, virtual nature of digital publishing.
Deep down, the publishing-industrial complex will not be satisfied until they can do away with those pesky librarians, they who broker reading as a public good, champion the right to read, and advocate for equitable access. Penguin invoked the term “friction,” in reference to the ease of checking out books; but I see the real “friction” as the Bonus Army of librarians, authors, and readers who are speaking truth to power. How convenient it would be if we were starved out of the reading ecology.
We’re also back to my ancient observation about Google: “don’t be evil” does not translate into “do be good.”
Sue Little of Jabberwocky in Newburyport, Massachusetts, one of New England’s longest-running indie bookstores agrees. “People who love books are feeling fiercely protective of their books and booksellers.” Her customers travel from farther away than ever, she adds, because they’re seeking that unique bookseller’s experience. “It’s like people wanting to pay farmer’s market prices not only because they want fresh produce, but because they want to keep local farmers in business. They see value in bookstores.”
On the other hand, Little has jumped into the e-reader market with both feet to stay afloat. Customers can now download e-books at her store or through her web site via a new IndieBound app. “If we can replace physical sales with sales of downloads, we’ll be fine,” she says.
“What you read when you don’t have to…”
1. Let me subscribe to my favorite authors.
2. Keep books updated for one price.
3. Buy a print copy, get an electronic copy, too.
4. Give more of my money to authors.
5. Indie bookstores should sell e-books.
This article is a typical example of writers protesting library closures, unsuccessfully in this case. Writers like Philip Pullman and Zadie Smith believe in the importance of libraries. But of all the writers who support libraries, how many publish with corporations that won’t allow library ebook lending? How many even think about that? Or the likelihood that in a few years most books might be ebook only, and probably unavailable to libraries?
Philip Pullman publishes with a subsidiary of Random House, which does allow ebook lending. Zadie Smith with Penguin, which is restricting their lending policy. But others?
Even of the authors who resent libraries and think they steal sales, would they really want a world without libraries? They might not like it that people can borrow their books without paying for them, but would they never want to do the same with other books? Or have we gotten to the point where writers don’t need to read books anymore? It seems like people who write business or self-help books are only semiliterate, but good novelists must still read the works of others.
Today, authors such as Prescott can bypass traditional publishers. They can digitally format their own manuscript, set a price and sell it to readers through a variety of online retailers and devices. Amazon sells e-books via its Kindle device and on its Kindle app for smartphones and computers. Barnes & Noble sells e-books through its Nook electronic reader device and app. There is also the Sony eReader, Apple’s iPad and Kobo, while Overdrive provides e-books to libraries.
Almost every day brings more digital modes for readers to obtain books in non-print forms, creating more choices for readers, opportunities for self-published writers, and challenges for traditional publishers.
Miller says LJ editors have been amazed by the strength of the findings so far—including the degree to which libraries are boosting book sales. “Our data show that over 50% of all library users report purchasing books by an author they were introduced to in the library,” Miller noted. “This debunks the myth that when a library buys a book the publisher loses future sales. Instead, it confirms that the public library does not only incubate and support literacy, as is well understood in our culture, but it is an active partner with the publishing industry in building the book market, not to mention the burgeoning e-book market.”
For one thing, people are buying more and more books in Amazonia, and more and more of them are on Amazon’s ebook platform the Kindle. In May this year, Amazon announced that, for the first time, it was selling more Kindle versions of books than paperback and hardbacks combined, and (here’s the thing that doesn’t get quoted so often) sales of print books were still increasing.
Amazon also announced that, in the year to May 2011, it had seen the fastest year-on-year growth rate for its US books business, when expressed in volume and in dollars. This included books in all formats, print and digital. In the UK, less than one year after opening its UK Kindle store, Amazon.co.uk is selling more Kindle books than hardcover books. And again, this is while hardcover sales continue to grow.
Let’s not be naive. Any retail channel that ends up being dominated by one player will end up squeezing its producers; just ask a farmer. But Amazon is, right now, giving people what they want: competitive pricing, rapid delivery, massive choice, good customer service. And it’s selling books. A lot of books.