“Ebooks are dead again!”: The Boy Who Cried Wolf

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This is a special guest post/rant from Kris Vetter Tomes, an ebook developer at Lerner Publishing in Minnesota. She has feelings about the print/digital debate and wants you to know about them.


In a recent Guardian article, How eBooks Lost Their Shine: ‘Kindles now look clunky and unhip’, Paula Cocozza, like many others before her, raised the alarm that ebooks are dying out and print is the true champion, pointing to the Publishers Association’s new report as evidence.

Beginning with a paragraph listing out all the things you can’t do on a Kindle, the article misses the existing solutions that e-reader developers have worked tirelessly to incorporate. The article says you can’t:

  1. Turn down a corner — Use the e-reader’s bookmark feature
  1. Tuck a flap in a chapter — The e-reader automatically remembers where you stopped reading
  1. Flick the pages to see how far you have come and how far you have to go — e-Readers tell you the percentage of the book you’ve read. Kindle also offers a “Reading Progress” feature that estimates how much time it will take you to finish reading the book.
  1. Can’t remember something potent and find it again with reference to where it appeared on a right- or left-hand page — You certainly can do this on a fixed layout ebook because it is a print-layout equivalent. For reflowable ebooks, many devices also have a landscape viewing option where you can read with text in synthetic spreads (aka left and right “pages”). And since most people settle on a font size within the first few pages of an ebook and don’t change it again, they certainly could remember where it appeared vertically on a “page.”
  1. Tell whether the end is really the end, or whether the end equals 93% followed by 7% of index/and or questions for book clubs” — A cursory glance at the e-reader’s TOC feature will clearly inform you of any back matter and the title/number of the last chapter.
  1. Pass it on to a friend or post it through your neighbor’s doorKindle lending library, anyone?

The article also gives voice to the opinion that “I don’t think people are reading long-form fiction on their phones” without any statistics to support or oppose it. A 2016 statistic from BookNet Canada’s North American sales figures shows that reading ebooks on phones is up a staggering 20% over 2015, which had also seen a huge increase in phone ebook reading. I acknowledge that the UK and North America are different markets, but there are very likely to be similarities.

Perhaps the article’s most egregious error is that it initially misleads readers by lambasting UK ebook sales as declining by a whopping 17% in 2016, without ever mentioning that the Publishers Association’s report actually states that ebook sales declined 3% in 2016. That’s a huge difference. And 3% is a small enough number that it very well may be within the margin of error. Other reports emphasize their margin of error, such as BookNet Canada’s 2017 report noting a 3% margin of error. Unfortunately, the Publishers Association’s report did not.

Notably, way down in the 16th paragraph, the Guardian article finally, off-handedly mentions that the Publishers Association’s report shows a 6% increase in overall digital publishing sales in the UK in 2016 (grouping ebooks and audiobooks together). Comparatively, when I attended Tech Forum 2017 in Toronto, BookNet Canada revealed North American sales numbers showing both print book and ebook sales down 3% in 2016 (with the 3% margin of error) and a hefty increase in audiobook sales. A logical person interprets this as audiobooks experiencing an increase, not that print and ebooks are dying.

A logical person interprets this as audiobooks experiencing an increase, not that print and ebooks are dying.

But all of this is pointless, because as I’ve said time and time again, print and digital books are not at war. They are not mutually exclusive. I don’t know why people are set on pitting them against each other. Each has their advantages and disadvantages and appeal to different readers, as noted in a previous blog post. And yes, this article acquiesces such in the final paragraph via quote from James Daunt, managing director of Waterstones, about ebooks finding their sales equilibrium. But the entire tone of the article up to this quiet punctuation mark supports the print vs. digital battle that has long plagued the publishing industry for a decade.

I would like to politely point out that although fetishizing print books has long been a trend since ebooks arrived on the scene, people can enjoy print books without demeaning ebooks. Just because this article espouses a couple people’s anecdotal evidence does not mean that their experiences apply to all readers in the world. There are plenty of reasons people read print books or ebooks or audiobooks, and a healthy portion of people consume books in more than one format. That’s not my anecdotal evidence; that’s referencing North American statistics from BookNet Cananda.

Why are print books, ebooks, and audiobooks being discussed as battling each other when publishers are making money on all formats?

The article attempts to salvage the wedge it drives between print books and ebooks, by saying audiobooks are an acceptable form of digital publishing. In a poorly written transition, the article says, “However, none of this is to say that digital publishing is the enemy of physical book publishing” and then goes on to talk about an art gallery where patrons can listen to a playlist of poems while looking at print books.

Overall, this article is disappointing and fuels the publishing civil war. Why are print books, ebooks, and audiobooks being discussed as battling each other when publishers are making money on all formats? In fact, publishing should be more concerned about other forms of entertainment, like the Internet, TV, and movies, which far outstrip the overall category of books in filling people’s leisure time. Publishers should be working to provide books in every format their readers desire and not worry about which one takes up the biggest piece of the pie.


Kris Vetter Tomes is the Digital Production Coordinator for children’s publisher Lerner Publishing Group, where she focuses on best practices in print and digital workflow, creation of digital book products, and repurposing existing content. She is also an international speaker and a freelance ebook developer for publishers throughout North America.

4 Responses to ““Ebooks are dead again!”: The Boy Who Cried Wolf”

  1. Colleen Cunningham says:

    Hear, hear, Kris! Why does it have to be a war? When family or friends tell me that they like one format over the other, I tell them that it’s not really the format they like as it is the *functionality* of the format. When and where we read plays a big part in whether we prefer print or digital. Or whether we use *both* in our daily lives … it’s possible!

  2. Noah Genner says:

    Hi Kris,
    Thanks for the data shout-out.

    I think we need to be very careful with some of the numbers being floated about and look at what the consumer, or reader, is actually doing. As you’ve pulled out from the data we presented at Tech Forum…ebook purchasing is actually flat, or very slightly down, in Canada – according to our data. That is based on reported purchasing by consumers not on publisher reported sales so it takes into account non-traditional published ebooks. Some publishers have increased the price of ebooks and have seen a corresponding decrease in sales because of that – it is very unlikely because ebooks have ‘lost their cool’.

    Consumers (book buyers) base their book purchasing decisions primarily on price and convenience. In 1000’s of surveys these two items always rise to the top as two of the most important decisions in why people purchase. Format might be part of the equation, but likely mostly (only?) as it fits into the other factors.

  3. Peter Villevoye says:

    Hey Paula, can you carry five hefty printed books in your pocket ? Can you read a printed book in the dark ? Can you increase the font size when your eyes decrease ? Can you search for a single word and any instances, instantly ? Can you mark not just your own key sentences but also read those of others ? Can you start reading a book within two minutes, right after hearing or reading about it, anytime, 24/7 ?

    Of course, “ebooks” (whatever the names or formats are or will be) won’t go away.
    The world of ebooks is still a trade “under construction”, and we’ve already seen some very bad examples of cumbersome initiatives and half-baked solutions. But people read, digitally, a lot, without doubt.

    Those who keep assuming that “print is still champion” fall into three categories:
    1. they either have never read or experienced a truly well-crafted digital publication;
    2. they encounter problems with buying, paying, downloading, opening, and reading;
    2. they carry strong emotions towards printed media – and they’re entitled to !

    Compared to the sophisticated cult of book-reading, the current state of ebooks is equivalent to the era of the first commercially available books, a couple of centuries ago. So there’s still a lot to be invented and improved.

    Authors, editors, and publishers are trying to find satisfying methods for marketing, production, personalisation, distribution, subscription, tracking, analysing, and back to marketing again. And all stages in the whole cycle can be as intertwined as much as you want them to be. Innovation is gradually in progress among the usual suspects (large publishing houses), and disruption is coming from unexpected new market players, as always.

    However, the audiences are massively confused by all these different stores, payments, licenses, procedures, downloads, readers, apps, everything. It’s a jungle out there !

    Sigh – I know, it’s always a matter of marketing. Parties like Apple, Adobe, Microsoft, and Google won’t move an inch anymore without the certainty that any content can be marketed, entitled, counted, tracked, traced, and analysed. Simply sending out an ePub file or even a PDF into ‘the wild’, is heresy according to their shrewd marketing minds…

    But as the world turns, improvements will be made, and methods will evolve.
    Open Source tools are probably the way to go. Just like it’s relatively easy for everyone to get a pen and a piece of paper somewhere for free and start writing, I think the Freedom of Digital Press will also be established and endorsed by free tools. Is that a strange thought ?

    And ebooks aren’t dead !
    Their cult is still at infancy.

  4. Alex says:

    Once had a company make a bad attempt at using math to explain how their firm out performed everyone else. Of course you look good when your inventory is nine out of ten. A fact I immediately stated. Let’s look at your competition and compare their inventory count which is greater than 1000.

    I see the same thing here. Let’s pick apart incorrect statements and show ebooks are a dying breed.

    If you are afraid of ebooks, no one is forcing you to read them. The rest of us who obtain immense pleasure from ebooks will remain very content.

    Preaching fear means you are the only one feeling insecure.

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