“Ebooks are dead again!”: The Boy Who Cried Wolf
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:
- Turn down a corner — Use the e-reader’s bookmark feature
- Tuck a flap in a chapter — The e-reader automatically remembers where you stopped reading
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.
- Pass it on to a friend or post it through your neighbor’s door — Kindle 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.