How quickly will readers shift to ebooks?

It’s hard to imagine that something as ubiquitous as the printed book could disappear quickly. But part of the difficulty is that such transitions come not as sudden shifts but overlaps, and although we’ve experienced several of them in the recent past we don’t remember them as dramatic events. CDs existed alongside vinyl records for quite awhile, and suddenly they were gone—but no one perceived their disappearance as sudden because their attention had shifted to CDs long before. Same with cassettes. About eight years ago I was publishing a series of spoken conversations both on CD and cassette. For quite awhile sales were split 50/50 between the two formats, and then literally within the space of two months it shifted 90/10 in favor of CDs. (I assume that was the year when CD players in cars became standard equipment.) Believe me, we perceived that as a dramatic shift. But it wasn’t, really. Cassettes had long before become a legacy format, useful only to people who had players in their car.

An important thing to keep in mind: when ebooks take over, paper books will not disappear. But at some critical point ebooks will become the default format, and from that point print books will be a niche market, although a fairly large one as people adjust to the new reality. Konrath and Eisler put it well:

Joe: In the history of technology, when people begin to embrace the new media tech, it winds up dominating the marketplace. CDs over vinyl and tapes, DVD over VHS. The Internet over newspapers. Even Priceline over travel agents–

Barry: Yes! Sorry to interrupt, but this is something that interests me so much. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve heard saying, “But paper isn’t going to disappear.” That isn’t the point! If you ask the wrong question, the right answer to that question isn’t going to help you. So the question isn’t, “Will paper disappear?” Of course it won’t, but that’s not what matters. What matters is that paper is being marginalized. Did firearms eliminate the bow and arrow? No–some enthusiasts still hunt with a bow. Did the automobile eliminate the horse and buggy? No–I can still get a buggy ride around Central Park if I want.

Now, some new technologies really have completely displaced their forebears. For example, there’s no such thing as eight-track tape anymore. And yet some people still do listen to their music on vinyl, despite the advent of mp3 technology. The question, then, is what advantages does the previous technology retain over the new technology? If the answer is “none,” then the previous technology will become extinct, like eight-track. If the answer is “some,” then the question is, how big a market will the old technology continue to command based on those advantages?

Joe: You’re talking about niche markets.

Barry: Exactly.

Joe: We’ve discussed this before. Paper won’t disappear, but that’s not the point. The point is, paper will become a niche while digital will become the norm.

Barry: Agreed. Lots of people, and I’m one of them, love the way a book feels. I used to like the way books smelled, too, before publishers started using cheap paper. And you can see books on your shelf, etc… those are real advantages, but they’re only niche advantages. Think candles vs electric lights. There are still people making a living today selling candles, and that’s because there’s nothing like candlelight–but what matters is that the advent of the electric light changed the candle business into a niche. Originally, candlemakers were in the lighting business; today, they’re in the candlelight business. The latter is tiny by comparison to the former. Similarly, today publishers are in the book business; tomorrow, they’ll be in the paper book business. The difference is the difference between a mass market and a niche.

So how quickly could the landscape change, whether or not we notice it? Consider the example of video and record stores:

Dean, in particular, seems to think bookstores will remain valid for the next decade or two, whereas I foresee a collapse on the order of what happened to video and record stores.

In our little college town of 15,000 students and about 10,000 full-time residents, we had seven video stores and four record stores five years ago. Today, all we have is Blockbuster, which is a chain on the ropes, and one niche store that combines videos, books, albums, and CD’s, eclectic art for the discerning college hippie. Ironically, we have one other “record” store—and all it sells is classic vinyl albums, mostly on eBay. I think that’s the Bookstore Future—towns might have one weird shop that thrives on nostalgia and the personal touch. We do have a neat indie bookstore owned by former M*A*S*H writer Karen Hall, but it recently cleared away a section to put in a yarn store, not a good sign of the health of paper sales in spite of our recent Waldenbooks closing.

I certainly noticed that the advent of Netflix killed the video store. Quickly, but not instantly; Blockbuster still seems to have delusions that their stores will become relevant again. Meanwhile, Netflix prepares for its own imminent demise at the hands of streaming video—by creating the first and best streaming video service. Record stores I’m less familiar with in everyday life, but I do remember noting with interest as companies like Tower Records suddenly closed all their physical outlets.

And books? Perhaps its telling that there is so much talk these days about how the e-reader experience could never compete with the look, smell, and touch of a real book. Not interested myself in anything but the content of a book, such talk always struck me as insane. Nearly every book I’ve owned has been a shoddy physical product, printed on cheap wood pulp, badly bound, misaligned, smelly—none of which bothered me, since I wasn’t interested in paying more money for a higher quality delivery vehicle. Books were to be read, marked up, and shelved. But the defenders of print are now starting to sound like foodies in their rhapsodic appreciation of books and (independent, always independent!) bookstores. When snob appeal is your main line of defense, you have become a niche market.

For those who move on, it will be a vague process, as it was when the world moved from thinking of cell phones as an extravagance to thinking of them as, well, phones. For staunch defenders of the niche, there will come an afternoon when they look around and wonder: Hey, where did everybody go?


12 thoughts on “How quickly will readers shift to ebooks?

  1. I am not particularly a Luddite, (I love gadgets), but I haven’t allowed cellphones to take over my life. In our family, the cellphone is primarily for emergencies, for me and my wife Jean to get a hold of one and other, and as a pager. We don’t have a landline phone either, but use Google Voice and Skype. Jean has a T-mobile pre-paid that cost her $10.00 every other month. My Credo phone is $29.00, but when the contract runs out, I will get a prepaid too.
    The cell phone is like the 8track or CD, a transitional device. I have an iPod touch with Skype and a SEP phone app. You’d be amazed at all the places you can get free Wi-Fi in a city like Minneapolis. I believe wireless connection to the web in various appliances will make the stand alone cell phone obsolete.
    One of the most remarkable changes I notice after getting back to the Twin Cities after 10 years in Japan, was that the card catalog was all electronic and you can access it through your home computer. You can also get any book in the Metro area sent to your neighborhood library, or if you can’t find it there, you can get it through interlibrary loan. I currently have 9 books checked out and 7 in request. All done online. My reading interests are not mainstream so my local library rarely has what I need in the stacks. And to buy all these books would not only be beyond my means, be they electronic or paper, it would also be against my views on conspicuous consumption.
    I sometimes download public domain electronic books onto my iPod (the iPod is an iPhone, as said by Steve Jobs, “except without the monthly connection fee), which are free, alone with reading the paper version, simply because when you do research, you can find things more easily electronically, which can point you to the place in the book you need.
    If books do become as unessential as you think they will, I believe it will only be because of a severe deterioration of the intellectual life of our society. One of the reasons I moved back was because I could sense this deterioration from the other side of the Pacific ocean, and felt I needed to come back to help stop it.

  2. If books do become as unessential as you think they will, I believe it will only be because of a severe deterioration of the intellectual life of our society.


    I don’t think that at all. In fact, I think there could very well be an upsurge in reading as more people find writers writing what they want to read at a very fair price. I can think of many books I would like to have at least skimmed but never bothered with because I didn’t want to pay for them or even take the trouble to get them from a library. For a dollar apiece, delivered on a whim to my e-reader, I would have probably looked at several of them.

    Of course an upsurge in reading doesn’t mean we will become a country of intellectuals. But I think that a story in book form is better for you, mind and soul, than the audio or video equivalent. And so many folks who would have otherwise spent their time in the grip of television or movies or video games (and grip of the corporate interests driving them) might actually develop a bit of an inner life, and experience some freedom as well. Who could argue with that?

  3. As to the intellectual dangers posed by ebooks, this short article about the uproar over libraries being closed in the UK is pertinent. I especially like the ending:

    When the children of 2011 look back, they will not see this as the year their local libraries were taken away. This will be the year they all got libraries of their own.

  4. Rsaenz, I am not talking about written knowledge as being a distraction or a consumer product.

    You wrote: ” I didn’t want to pay for them or even take the trouble to get them from a library. ”

    The library is not troublesome, but is made easier by allowing you to reserve books at home and find them on a shelf waiting for you at your neighborhood library. God Bless Ben Franklin for inventing the public library! The other aspect I noticed changed in the libraries: You check them out yourself with a scanner, so you never have to stand in line. I know Minneapolis libraries are ahead of the curve, but before we start defunding and destroying them, we need to look at places that got it right.

    ” For a dollar apiece, delivered on a whim to my e-reader, I would have probably looked at several of them.”

    A dollar a piece? I’ve only seen those prices for public domain books. The books I need for research typically cost $5.00 to $15.00 each.

    If you look at books as a just another distraction like video games, your perspective might make some sense. But for serious research and scholarship, it is a totally different matter.

  5. ” For a dollar apiece, delivered on a whim to my e-reader, I would have probably looked at several of them.”

    A dollar a piece? I’ve only seen those prices for public domain books. The books I need for research typically cost $5.00 to $15.00 each.


    Typically the author receives 10-15% of the price of a printed book; the rest of the money goes to agents, publishers, printers, wholesalers, and retailers. So the author might be getting 50 cents to 2 dollars of your $5-15; if you bought the book used, or borrowed it from a library, he gets nothing at all from your use of it.

    Now imagine the author puts the same book on sale at Amazon for $2.99, a very common price for self-published ebooks. No agents, no publishers, no printers, no wholesaler, one retailer. Amazon keeps 30% of the sale, so the author receives $2.10 of your $2.99.

    99 cents is also a common price for ebooks. Sometimes it is used for older titles to encourage steady sales. Sometimes it is used as a “loss leader,” e.g. for the first book of a series where the rest are priced higher, to encourage the reader to take a taste.

    I agree with you that currently materials used for research and scholarship are heavily dependent on the traditional publishing model, where the writer gets an advance which he uses to pay for the time needed to research and write the book. But I think those writers are “free riders,” feeding of the crumbs of a production system whose lifeblood is the million seller. When million sellers migrate to ebooks and publishers become a pale shadow of what they are now, there won’t be money in the slush fund to do prestigious vanity projects. This happened long ago with academic journals, where a yearly subscription can cost hundreds of dollars for three or four measly issues because the only market is university libraries. Researchers and scholars who want to continue putting their work in the hands of readers better start looking at new avenues quickly.

  6. Lee,

    I forgot to mention that for a few years now $1 is the price I commonly pay for my own books, many of them obscure scholarly ones, often pristine library hardbacks. This is because I buy my books through AbeBooks, the used bookstore database, and for reasons I don’t fully understand these stores have decided that $1 is worth their time to send me a book.

    The two downsides of this are (1) I pay $3 in shipping to get a $1 book, and (2) the author sees none of the money. I would much prefer to pay that $4 to the author, who at Amazon rates would receive $2.80 for my use of the book.

  7. My biggest concern is a vague fear based on having lost important documents when my computer crashed. What if the whole ebook universe crashed and all the books simply evaporated? That can’t happen to physical books.

  8. I do not have a Kindle or any other practical way of reading an ebook (I don’t consider my computer very practical), so maybe I don’t understand how these things work, but I just don’t see the appeal for books that you love. I totally get it for books that you’ll only read once (which I tend to resell or swap out on PaperBackSwap). But I LOVE having a library. I love pulling a book from my shelf and lending it to a friend. I love underlining good thoughts and coming back to them again to reread. I love flipping through a book before I read it and sampling some of the pages. I like making notes in the margins. I have a somewhat photographic memory, so I remember that I read something on a certain place on a page. I don’t know that I’d have those sorts of cues on an ereading device. Do you even fliip pages? Or do you scroll like on the computer?

    And I second Kelly’s concern. I always remember back when Amazon deleted a certain book (1984 or some other dystopian work I can’t remember) off of everyone’s Kindle due to a copyright violation. The marginalia vanished, too, including some students had made for school projects. That gave me the sense that the ebooks would not truly be “mine” in the sense that a physical book is, that perhaps the seller could take it back if he liked.

    And I can’t lend it out, either. I lend a lot of books.

    So those are some thoughts from an ebook outsider. With that said, I think you are probably right about the actual market trend.

  9. ps. I did like your point here in the comments that you could spend the same $4, but have it actually benefit the author. That seems to coincide with the idea of paying a man for his work.

  10. Like Brandy, I don’t own an e-reader and have about zero interest in owning one.

    I’m not opposed to ebooks and your recent posts have even piqued my latent interest in writing and selling them. But my books are like a part of my family. They are an integral part of my history and life. And I plan on continuing to add them to my home and life.

    Who wants to sit in a comfy wingback chair next to a cozy fire on a blustery night… with a Kindle? Not me. Give me a well-worn and loved volume any day.

    They can have my books when they pry them from my cold, dead fingers.

  11. And yet AT&t is suddenly throwing the future of Internet streaming,at least in it’s current bandwidth into question with their new 150 gb per month limits. I’m sure the rest will follow suit….so I am not sure that the rented blu ray from Netflix is quite dead yet.

  12. Kindle books are fine for something that doesn’t require a lot of intellectual effort like a novel. It is difficult to search, look up the table of contents, appendices , etc. Just started on Horton’s systematic theology and I am sure glad I got that in hardcover(even if the physical binding doesn’t appear to be of very good quality) rather than trying it on a Kindle. Didn’t care for the mess that the ESV study bible was on the kindle.

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