Why eBooks won’t rule the Earth

The certainty in the headlines is almost palpable. “eBooks Now ‘Dominant Single Format’ in Adult Fiction Sales,” shouted book publishing site GalleyCat. “Kindle ebook sales have overtaken Amazon print sales,” trumpeted UK’s The Guardian. “E-book revenue outstrips hardbacks in first quarter,” trembled The Bookseller.

But if these stories led to you to believe that the march from paper book to eBook for all books is inevitable, you’d be just as wrong as those who assumed the introduction of airplanes would mean we’d all now be piloting flying cars.

The eBook stats are impressive. Tallying up dollar sales for the first quarter of 2012, the Association of American Publishers concluded that eBooks — as a format — outsold hardcovers and mass market paperbacks for adult fiction and non-fiction. While eBooks didn’t quite outpace adult trade paperbacks or any paper formats combined, it was the first time the eBook format beat hardcover.

For all of last year, the new BookStats 2012 report states eBooks were the dominant single format for adult fiction, accounting for 30 percent of net publishers’ sales in 2011. And Amazon recently piled on with the detail that this year in the UK, for every 100 hardbound and paperback books it sold, customers bought 114 eBooks — meaning, in Amazon’s particular case, that more digital books are sold than the physical formats combined, extending to the U.K. a Kindle milestone already achieved in the U.S.

But while many texts may head for an eBook future, not all will. Some types of printed books are likely to go in two wildly different directions: skipping eBooks entirely for other digital forms, or prevailing in paper.

Frank Catalano

It’s a matter, for the former, of even an eBook still being so “book-like” that it remains a too-restrictive format. And for the latter, of human psychology and nostalgia.

Here’s my book-lover-yet-digital-author look through my crystal reading glasses at how the tome triumvirate may rule:

eBooks. Lighter, able to sync across devices, (sometimes) cheaper: eBooks have lots of advantages over paper. But “traditional” eBooks of the Kindle/Nook variety are still a largely linear, monolithic medium: you start at the beginning, you read to the end. (Sure, you can jump around or search, but you can also flip pages of a physical book.)

As a result, eBooks are ideal for linear fiction and narrative non-fiction where sequential storytelling is paramount. And indeed, many reports indicate that genre fiction (such as science fiction) is doing the best in eBooks and massacring mass-market paperbacks, which had been genre fiction’s preferred format.

For narrative works — and narrative isn’t going away, as the storytelling function has a centuries-long history, regardless of form — eBook is the new pulp.

Apps. Quick: what’s the most convenient way to work with a recipe? It’s not propping up your grandparents’ huge Good Housekeeping cookbook between an iPad and a Roku. It’s reading off of a single sheet of paper or — two generations ago — an index card. Recipes from cookbooks are the type of non-linear information that can be “chunked” and mixed (similar to the content of textbooks and how-to books): the kind of  information that’s likely to first flirt with the eBook format but then abandon it completely and turn to software apps.

Digital textbook materials are already experiencing this kind of chunking as they are broken apart by educators and recombined into custom courseware. How-to apps and websites have the freedom to add multimedia elements, such as animations and videos.

GeekWire is in Santa Monica, Calif., today for the launch of Amazon’s latest Kindle devices. Check back for all the details later this morning.

Even children’s books that rely as much on activities as narrative are becoming more app than eBook: Callaway Digital Arts has been a pioneer on iOS, and the much-loved CD-ROM Living Books of last century (remember Little Monster at School?) are being fully updated by Wanderful Books and re-released as apps.

For these categories of chunkable or activity-rich content, a physical book was a necessary but imperfect distribution mechanism that didn’t allow the content to fully shine. It’s processed cheese (or the recipe for it) unbound.

Paper. Take a minute to visualize a well-designed physical book. The heft and comfortable fit with your hand. The satisfying, subtle crack from the binding as you open it for the first time. The sight of a well-chosen font and laid-out page. Even the smell of new paper and ink.

Setting aside the reality that paper will live on as a continued cheap, portable and disposable book medium outside of the first world, positive memories of books will ensure it lives on everywhere. For some, books are as much about paper, binding and cover art as they are about the words inside. They are collectable and desirable in and of the fact they simply are books. And there’s the undeniable pleasure of getting a hand-written autograph from a favorite author to place in a physical book — the Kindle equivalent, in the case of a collectible, really isn’t.

For a while, graphic novels and art books will still be superior on paper, but that’s a transitory resolution advantage fast fading.

At some point, most paper books will effectively be coffee table books, primarily for display. For many readers, it’ll be the evolution from book as content into book as object.

So, eBooks fully triumphant? No. The right content will go the right way: digital or paper. Think of the destination formats, appropriately, as bookends.

Frank Catalano is a consultant, author and veteran analyst of digital education and consumer technologies whose GeekWire columns take a practical nerd’s approach to tech. He tweets @FrankCatalano and consults as Intrinsic Strategy. He wrote two Dummies books more than a decade ago which probably would be apps today. Or simply still out of print.

Previously on GeekWire: When eBooks attack, mass paperbacks die

  • HotfireXG

    We went from walking to horses. Horses to bicycles. Bicycles to cars. Cars to planes. Planes to space shuttles.

    We went from record players to cassetes, and cassetes to CDs and from CDs to MP3s.
    Your nostalgia and artistic bias aside, ebooks are the future and it’s just a matter of WHEN paper back books become obsolote, not ‘if’.
    After reading your article I’m trying to figure out what the main point was. I’ll conclude with Moores law; Ebooks are the future because they are simply more efficient than paper.

    • Pkmakin

      The point of the article is that we still walk.

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

      We still walk, ride, bike and fly. People still buy CDs and vinyl.

      Few new media ever completely replace their forebears. The earlier forms tend to instead re-focus on what they do best. And ebooks aren’t necessarily even the best form for some work now trapped in paper book format.

      • Leo

        Yes, still buy, but much less then in the past. 1%.

        • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

          Definitely less compared to when, say, mass market paperbacks were at their peak (per my column last year, “When eBooks attack, mass paperbacks die”). But 1%? Even CDs haven’t dropped that far.

    • Leo

      Very Good! I Agree!

  • http://twitter.com/tsupasat Tyson Supasatit

    I heartily agree with this article. Ebooks make a lot of sense for linear works whereas paper books are the ones you want to keep for reference or on your shelves. Will people still reference the ebooks they bought yesterday 10 years from now? I don’t think so.

  • Rita Ashley, Executive Coach

    Thanks for the reality check, Frank. Don’t forget the digitally disenfranchised… those who live in remote areas with poor or no download capability. Another consideration about ebook publishing is the mass appeal of ebook self-publishing. Those books purchased by the author and friends of authors skew statistics. They are not mainstream, nor are they, individually, significant. But cumulatively, the number is meaningful and growing.

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

      Thanks Rita; good points. What’s interesting is the future adoption by the “digitally disenfranchised” (and as I note, much of this eBook discussion is a largely affluent, first-world discussion right now) could mean they stay with paper for a long time — or abruptly leap to digital. Price point, distribution, connectivity, durability and convenience could tip the balance.

      I suspect Amazon is considering a little of that by today announcing the price of the entry-level Kindle has dropped to $69.

      On self-publishing, the non-Amazon stats I cite are based on dollars, not units. But the point is well taken, as not all stats are.

  • http://www.slideshare.net/samirsshah Samir Shah

    eBook will rule the earth, and soon.

  • http://twitter.com/HistorianInMe Kayla Sonergoran

    For me, the only way I’ll even consider e-reading is via my iPod. I use public transportation and considering the amount of crime that has happened at the station I must use, not to mention all the lewd and crude behavior in the vicinity, I do not feel safe pulling out my iPad. I only e-read on my iPod Touch when I am trying to kill time as I wait for the bus or train. I also prefer using my iPod because I can use both Kindle and iBooks (I have no interest in Nook) apps.

    As long as there is that whole DRM and compatibility issue going on, I am not going to go out and buy a dedicated e-reader such as the Kindle or the Nook because it makes no sense.

    Hopefully one of these days publishers and tablet creators will get with the times and realize that DRM is so 10 years ago and accept the fact that they need to make a competitively great product and let customers choose from whom they’ll buy their books.

    As to whether or not ebooks will ever rule, its eventual but the whole drm thing isn’t helping. I am not going to buy two e-readers just to have access to books nor am I going to use my iPod (or even iPad) as a serious e-reader any time soon due to the strain on the eyes.

  • http://www.facebook.com/lcawyer Lisa Cawyer

    Your paper book will still be there for you in the bookshelf 20 or 30 years from now when your Kindle or Nook is sitting in some eDump waste site in China oozing heavy metals. Assuming your book was printed on acid free paper, you will not need to try and figure out how to import it’s contents into some new technology. Also your book is easier on your eyes; as it is not itself a light source but merely reflecting light — you do not need to print out your paper book in order to read long passages – it’s already printed.

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

      I still own some early eBooks, in a file format I don’t recognize, on 3.5″ floppy disks I can’t read. I’m probably not the only one.

      • epobirs

        It’s the floppy that is more the problem than the files themselves. The format used by the Kindle was originate din the 90s and until recently hadn’t had a major update since 2001. Amazon has introduced the new K8 format but most books that don’t specifically need it will ignore it for years to come because so much of the Kindle installed base cannot use it.

        But file formats are easy to support for very long periods, especially if they’re an open spec. I don’t know of any reason an EPUB file wouldn’t be easily displayed a century from now so long as the medium it lives on is still usable.

        Old media can be virtualized. I have a USB drive that contains an Amiga emulator and pretty much every bit of Amiga software ever released. I can plug it into almost any PC or Mac and have a virtual Amiga system running in a few minutes.

        Similarly, many people use DOSbox to run old software that is no longer supported on current operating systems. Do the hardware emulation in a portable run-time like Java and you can have the old stuff running in environments that didn’t exist when the emulator was created.

        Vernor Vinge had a pretty good take on this in ‘A Deepness In The Sky.’ So long as one is free to move files to new media, there is no reason for anything to truly die.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Oladele-Ayuba/1039515222 Oladele Ayuba

    the author is kind of myopic. ebooks will rule the earth.
    All the inconveniences of using ebooks in various situations will only prompt innovators to create adaptive tools and create niches of ebooks to suit various needs.
    ebooks will keep transforming and keep adapting and will take out paper at some point in the future. You can bet on it

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

      I will admit, I do wear glasses. But the reason is astigmatism.

      I think it’s important not to use eBook as a synonym for “digital.” EBook is just one digital format. And digital formats will evolve, including the eBook format,

      I do fully expect we will eventually get to the point where we have flexible, low-cost devices with a screen resolution equivalent to the best paper has to offer now (as I mention in my nod to graphic novels and art books). That will essentially be the new “book,” much as the transition from tablet (stone) to papyrus to wood pulp changed the material, but not the mission.

      However, some content will either skip that steady evolution and move to different digital forms, and some people will prefer paper perhaps for different reasons than they do today.

  • islander10

    Books fall into a bunch of categories, and one of the wasteful print ones now are textbooks, there must be warehouses of out of date textbooks. However the textbook publishers want to continue to make large amounts of money, so are resisting alot. (and I don’t think the authors get that much from a $150 textbook). but they are a combination of pictures/illustrations/exercises, etc that might be much better done as an app (and there are some good ones out there), but maybe the publishers are still being dinosaurs?
    Also, I buy a lot of art how-to books, again, a combination of pictures and text that isn’t being solved well by e-books, at least many of the formats, right now. So that is a formatting issue. And many of those would do well with a combination of video and illustrations and text.
    Magazines are also struggling in the reformatting world, which I think will be solved, but it is about the “collection” of articles and the images. The page-flipping apps, sort of work, but there’s some design issues…I see this being solved in the next few years, its all over the map right now, not standard enough.

  • http://twitter.com/newcelona newcelona

    It is not about the container, it is about the distribution.

    eBooks delete the distribution barriers for culture and literary entertainment.

    Everybody with a mobile device and a data connection will have access to the XXI’st century version of the Alexandria library.

    That is the eBook revolution, giving access to the population that has no access to paper books

    @newcelona

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

      I agree a large part of the benefit of eBooks (and digital apps, too) is potentially broad distribution. But without the device for the digital (the eBook’s “container”), they don’t work. That’s the real distribution barrier.

      A population that has no access to paper books may also have no access to digital devices — or simply may not be able to afford them. It’s a key wild card, especially in developing countries and poor areas of developed nations.

  • http://www.magnity.com David Shantz -Magnity

    Essentially no author of any book older than 15 years or so had any clue that there could be interaction that drives context. None of the great authors of the past knew that one day sound and motion could be incorporated with infographics to deliver an idea that engages the reader in a way that is most relevant. We’ll all miss something about paper books, but Nostalgia is a nice warm bed you can go crawl in under the covers with your blankee and be safe. Its a nice place to go when you “turn off the lights”. But it’s the unwritten books of the future that’s the more compelling story… What are the story tellers of
    today going to do on this bright new stage…

    in the mid 90′s Broderbund and StarPress were cracking the code on some of this. It was billed as the next generation of content. Our small firm helped push some of those titles out on newfangled plastic discs called CD ROMS – the nascent technology was being pushed to the limit. CDROMs were ahead of their time in the same way that the Apple Newton of that era was the first iPhone… Now, with apps on tablets, interactive books have a real shot. But success is not in trying to be a book.

    Today was a big day – we helped relaunch a few of those first interactive book titles with a little start-up named Wanderful Storybooks. The first three interactive books are three educational children’s books originally published as Living Books. Its a masterstroke to republish them as apps. Paper books are history. Its a bold future – let’s talk about making the new stuff !

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

      Where I might take issue with your historical time frame (my friend and science fiction writer Rob Swigart published the interactive novel Portal in 1986; see
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Portal_(interactive_novel)), I’m delighted that Wanderful has revived and revised the Living Books as apps. Congrats on their launch this week.

    • FrankCatalano

      I can suggest an even earlier example: Portal, the interactive novel developed by my friend and science-fiction colleague Rob Swigart (see http://bit.ly/P8dd3z) which dates back to 1986. That said, it’s good to see Wanderful revive Living Books as apps. Congrats on this week’s launch.

  • http://blog.collab.net/ Jack Repenning

    I’m 110% with you on preferences and relative strengths. But I’m still worried about the paper-based industry: if the mass market moves to e-books, won’t that undermine the economics of paper publishing? $100 coffee table books are already low volume; if they go to $1000, will anyone buy them?

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

      It could be that any remaining publisher, by definition, becomes a small press. And – good point – this could fully upend the economics of printers.

      • http://twitter.com/ivicakartelo Ivica Kartelo

        No. Publishers online choose design. Online printing firm sells. We are all publishers and printers is one.

        • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

          I was referring to print publishers.

    • epobirs

      The nature of printing itself is changing, so it’s hard to say which form the business will take down the road. POD (Print On Demand) was once thought to be impractical or only suited for crude small run items like a course syllabus. Now, POD offers some very attractive product at competitive prices, especially when you factor in the lack of capital outlay for a substantial print run.

      Like everything else, the print business will evolve to exploit those things it can do better than other approaches to the same goal.

  • Rita Ashley, Executive Coach

    Good information and perspective. There is a variable not included in the # of ebooks. Many are free. They still count as sold. New authors freebies and public domain titles are hidden in the ebook numbers. While it is safe to say digital books are here to stay, I am reminded of the advent of the digital watch and how it prompted folks to believe it was the end of the analog watch.

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

      Actually, that variable is included: the studies cited are based on sales revenue, not units, so they do account for free titles by excluding them. It’s only the Amazon stat that is units-only and doesn’t necessarily reflect revenue.

  • Juan A. Andreu

    I’ll make one more comment on this. I came back to this recently.
    Someone below made the argument that ‘we still walk’ even though we now have a myriad of options. But most people, given the options, would choose to utilize a particular technology that gets us from point A to point B, faster. This is not to say that previous technologies would ‘die out’. It is a matter of preference. But as time goes on, the better technology gives the user, in economic terms, a higher standard of living. You don’t walk everywhere because then you would lose time that you had for anything worth leisure. The only argument against this is if walking IS your leisure. There is, of course, an artistic appeal to good ole’ books. But the main point is that they are not more efficient and they are worse for the environment. In the end, technology will solve the environmental issues too, while STILL keeping our standard of living high.
    I’ll conclude with a beautiful video – 6 minutes long – talking about how the VATICAN is going to be digitizing their books…and why it’s beneficial to humanity. Most of you here will find this fascinating.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ylENx9xvB7w&feature=youtu.be

  • CollegeBookRenter

    I agree completely. I have some e-books and things like novels are great, but I tried an e-book for a class I was taking online and it was a disaster. I wish I would have just gone to http://www.collegebookrenter.com and rented the textbook instead.

    While e-books are good for some things, other things they just don’t match having a real book in your hands. Besides what happened to reading with your kids in bed and letting them turn the pages? Now we got them sliding their finger across a screen? I don’t think so!