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.
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.
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