Misreading the Facts on EBooks

Sep 12, 2014

The reported decline in e-reader sales is being misread as an indication that consumption of the ebook itself is in decline. This false conjecture has given authors and publishers hope that the printed book will return to the economic dominance it enjoyed before the technological innovation of the e-reader device.

No way. The ebook revolution continues apace and the print book business will continue to decline, despite the optimistic media huckstering.

Media pundits and professional trend forecasters often do not look beyond the obvious to validate their prognostications. They have pointed to the proliferation of multipurpose tablets as cutting into the sale of e-readers, which is correct as far as it goes, but the fact is that the tablet is an all-purpose device in which book reading is a mere fraction of its uses.

Distractions, for the voracious book reader, in the form of countless apps, notifications, videos, email, music, advertisements, etc. that come with tablets are infinite. One is subjected to temptations and annoyances that break concentration and intrude in the one-on-one communication system that defines reading. People for whom reading is a private passion crave total concentration to absorb the content and profit by it. Remember, library reading rooms require total silence to ensure uninterrupted concentration.

The fact is that the pool of dedicated readers of literature, as a rule of thumb, is a comparatively small fraction of the general public. In commercial terms, it was once estimated at about ten percent of the so-called "entertainment" dollar, which might not take into account book lending. The dedicated e-reader is the obvious device of choice for those who treat reading as their essential pastime. For those authors, like myself, weeding out the occasional reader that opts for the multipurpose tablet is actually good news since it helps identify dedicated consumers of literature, fiction and non-fiction. Still, some serious readers do opt for the tablet.

The printed book has served its various reading constituencies well. Book lovers were happy to immerse themselves in a book with no other thought in mind than what the book had to impart. Print book enthusiasts will continue to indulge in the false optimism of a return to its glory days, but as the latest reports from Barnes and Noble indicate, that business model faces severe economic hurdles.

More optimistic are sales reports from independent bookstores indicating that while the marketplace for printed books does have a future, it will evolve into smaller circles of dedicated readers, smaller outlets, smaller print runs, and as a consequence, smaller author advances and available promotion dollars. In other words, the future of books will be a hands-on business with smaller, specialized bookstores.

It seems logical to conclude that the first responders to the beta e-readers had chosen this medium for reasons of convenience, novelty and mobility. In the fiction area, most were genre readers, particularly in the Romance Fiction category, a genre that continues to dominate the digital reading community.

But now that e-reader devices are ubiquitous and more user-friendly for dedicated fiction readers, many older and for whom the reading experience is an ingrained and a dominant part of their lives, the likelihood is that users will adapt their reading habits to the device that is closer to the print product.

As a practitioner of the novelist's craft and one who pioneered the e-reader technology since 2007, my hunch is that serious readers will prefer the exclusive e-reader to the multipurpose tablet. Younger readers who have cut their teeth on technology, however, and whose expectations of the cyber experience have been literally honed since birth will opt for the device with the most possibilities, even if they develop into dedicated readers.

Traditionalists and others who have seen the recent media stories of the decline in ebook sales are misreading the facts. The ebook market share will continue to escalate, and it will soon completely dominate the textbook industry. E-readers will yield ground to the tablet, but the truly passionate reader will stick with the exclusivity of the new round of advanced exclusive e-readers.

Still, despite the joyful optimism of print book lovers, there can be no denying the impact of the digital reader, whether in the form of a feature or app on a tablet, cell phone, desktop or whatever device the future will bring. Like it or not, the printed book as an economic model is in the process of unraveling.

It will survive as long as the generation that grew up with the printed book remains an economic factor in its survival. When that generation passes into history the digital bookshelf will be the dominant technology for the reading public. Unfortunately, its decline is as inevitable as the rising and setting of the sun.