Has the e-book superseded the printed book? According to many, it has. There is a strong belief that digital delivery is killing traditional print, as evidenced by the growth of e-readers and increasing demand for e-books, and also by the adaptation of trade publishers themselves into the world of digital content delivery. Why do proponents of e-books herald the demise of printed books altogether, and what is it about printed books that makes this prospect so abhorrent?
In this digital era of Kindles and eBooks, publishers have been forced to separate the physical book from its content, and potentially discard the traditional codex entirely for the online world (Young 2007: 19). Trade publishers are now reacting to the advance of e-readers into Australian homes, and coming to terms with the establishment of Amazon and other online retailers, yet the value of the printed book to the reader has not yet been superseded by digital technologies.
The trade publishing industry encompasses the market for adult fiction, adult nonfiction, as well as children’s fiction and nonfiction books (Fisher 2010: 117). This essay examines current commentary on the future of this industry, particularly in Australia, and reflects on whether predictions that the printed book will be made obsolete by the e-book have been validated.
Economists Bower and Christensen have explained the changing trade publishing market as an example of disruptive technology. “Many companies have learned the hard way the perils of ignoring new technologies that do not initially meet the need of mainstream customers” (Bower and Christensen 1995: 44). The publishing industry, once the only means for readers to access authors’ works, is now faced with a consumer who expects almost every aspect of their life to be facilitated by their computer and the Internet. In response, trade publishers are now asking, “does the book need to be reincarnated in a virtual form to avoid being crowded out of the twenty-first century media landscape?” (Lee 2008: 7).
This conclusion however assumes that e-books have surpassed printed books in their provision of content and that consumers now prefer e-books to the codex. Book consumers are not at this stage yet, and furthermore “we shouldn’t presume to know that the point of e-books is to represent the formal or experiential qualities many people attribute to the reading of printed books” (Striphas 2009: 26).
There continues to be demand for the printed book and an appreciation of the physical object as well as the intrinsic experience of reading. Furthermore, publishers have not yet created an e-book that embodies all of the possibilities of e-books exhorted by its proponents. Until publishers are motivated – either by profit or creativity, to take e-books beyond pure content and into a new reader experience, the printed book will remain viable and will not be superseded by the disruptive technologies that so ominously threaten trade publishing. The future of the printed book cannot be simplified into a basic ‘software upgrade’ from codex to e-book format.
Digital content in the form of e-books paves the way for publishers to change the way they produce content while wading into new, unchartered areas. “There is no clear business model for e-books and other digital content” (Fisher 2010: 122). Trade publishers must respond to rapidly evolving e-book platforms such as Kindle and Apple’s iPad, and establish their role as value-adding players in the online sphere of self-publishers and e-retailers. It is in this area that trade publishers are struggling, and have been slow to turn the potential of e-books into reality. Trade publishers have not discarded the printed book as a product no longer worth creating because of the continued uncertainty of the e-book market.
From creation of a manuscript by the author through the editing process to publication, it has been observed that today “the book itself has been reconstituted as a digital file” (Thompson 2010: 328). In many ways this has redistributed costs of production for trade publishers. While currently publishers are faced with both the cost of producing and storing physical books as well as creating e-books, eventually the book industry may move “from physical inventory stored in a warehouse and trucked to retailers to digital files stored in cyberspace and delivered almost anywhere on earth as quickly and cheaply as email” (Epstein 2010).
A broad assumption about digital delivery is that e-books are cheaper to produce: they require no print costs, shipping costs or warehousing. In fact, the cost of conversion from print to e-publication across an increasing number of varied platforms is not necessarily a cheaper means of production, when one also considers the “additional costs involved in building and maintaining the IT infrastructure to support e-books” (Thompson 2010: 337). By taking on these costs, trade publishers are acknowledging the potential of e-books as a market.
These new markets for e-books could lead to higher overall sales. Backlist titles as well as new titles can now reach an online market previously ignored by traditional printed book producers (Picard 2003: 134). Online sites such as Twitter, Youtube and Facebook have established new sales and marketing avenues, while bloggers serve as the public relations agent for the digital age.
To launch a new range of e-books there are none of the traditional limitations of export – shipping, stock etc. Effective campaigns can start here – in fact the most famous success of the last few years, 50 Shades of Grey was launched by a micro e-publisher in Sydney” (BICC 2013: 119). It is evident that lucrative markets exist for e-books when marketed effectively.
Trade publishers are also now forming relationships with online retailers that are very different from the accepted supply chain between print book producer and bricks-and-mortar bookseller. “Those calling the shots in e-book supply are not traditional publishers – it is retailers such as Amazon and new players such as Apple that are driving the market” (Fisher 2010: 124). Readers now seek out books as individuals through their preferred online retailer, and demand low prices as they can now see sale prices for second-hand books – and expect that publishers are being squeezed for the biggest discount (Lee 2008: 18). Online sales are less profitable than one might expect, as the very nature of the online retail business leads to bargain hunting by discerning consumers.
The advent of print-on-demand digital printing has also lowered the barriers to entry for new publishers, by allowing small publishers to produce cost-efficient small print runs. Self-publishers and small independent businesses are forcing incumbent publishers to take smaller portions of the market.
Now that anyone with an Internet connection – or even a cellphone – effectively owns a digital printing press, the distinction between professional and amateur writers is rapidly blurring. Digital publishing has uncapped a geyser of creative output from authors who may never have made it into print or wouldn’t have thought to try” (Pham and Sarno 2010: 3).
With traditional print publishers coming to terms with these changes in the production process, it may be necessary to shrink print production and focus on advancing e-book technologies in order to remain competitive. E-books encourage innovation within trade publishing by shrinking the market and flooding consumers with more choice. This forces publishers to reinvent themselves for the digital age.
E-book technology has not outpaced the printed book yet. “The worth of a book has never lain purely in its contents and, though a bound object, it is not closed. It is a container, certainly, but one which has always referred us to other books, other thoughts, other artworks by its very existence” (Hennings 2008: 16). Print book publishers have honed the art of print making to such a degree that there is exceptional value in the book itself. E-books, on the other hand, are still a work in progress. There are certainly many opportunities to explore in digital publishing, but technology is lagging in terms of ease of use as well as aesthetic value.
Trade publishers are not producing e-books as replacements for the printed book. As evidenced by the evolution of the e-reader over the last ten years, from the Kindle and its updates, through to the Kobo, the Kobo mini and the Apple iPad, an e-reader that stands the test of time is not really at the forefront of technological invention. Technology is designed to be superseded. The printed book, on the other hand, is not. “Technology, the economics of the marketplace, and public policy decisions will have to catch up to the book, which supplies both information and entertainment efficiently and cheaply to hundreds of millions of people” (Greco 2005: 294).
If e-readers are not designed to mimic the endurance of the printed book, e-book producers must focus on an alternative reading experience:
As electronic devices evolve and proliferate, books are increasingly able to talk to readers, quiz them on their grasp of the material, play videos to illustrate a point or connect them with a community of fellow readers. The same technology allows readers to reach out to authors, provide instant reaction and even become creative collaborators, influencing plot developments and the writer’s use of dramatic devices.” (Pham and Sarno 2010: 1)
Publishers can embrace digital delivery while at the same time producing the printed book. Indeed, the argument that e-books are not at all replacements to the printed book, is highlighted by the dichotomy between the possibilities of e-books and the realities. Illustrated books such as cookbooks and children’s books provide an enormous scope for interactivity. There are already examples of this experimentation in the e-book market, for instance The Monster at the End of This Book (AppAdvice 2014), which allows users to press and swipe through the pages to undermine Grover’s attempts to prevent them from reaching the end of the book. In reality, however, the market for these e-books is still slow to develop:
I have been asking publishers about sales of their children’s and illustrated trade material. I haven’t found anybody yet that says they’re going well… e-books don’t make good gifts and illustrated books do” (Shatzkin 2012).
Furthermore, this area of publishing requires greater complexity in converting from print to digital and can become expensive when considering image rights and the commissioning of graphic designers.
This does not mean that e-books should not be developed and explored by trade publishers. E-book innovation is currently hampered by lack of investment by publishers willing to combine their knowledge of the book market and the possibilities of latest technologies. Trade publishers are still negotiating e-book pricing and developing stronger links with online retailers. If there remains little scope to move on from the combative relationship that many large publishers like Macmillan have with Amazon (Thompson 2010: 375), there will be little incentive to develop interesting e-books.
So far the publishers of fiction and non-fiction that is delivered as straight text have had a relatively painless switchover from selling 100% of their output in print to selling an average of more than 20% of it in digital form” (Shatzkin 2012).
Until e-books offer something to overwhelmingly induce a reader to choose it over a printed book, there will still be opportunity in the market for that printed book to sell. Whether this will continue indefinitely, is highly unlikely if e-book sales continue to rise and publishers are presented with new markets and revenue streams.
Book consumption has definitely been affected by the entry of e-readers and online retailers into the trade publishing industry. No longer are readers exploring independent bookshops and conversing with their local bookseller about what to read next (Thompson 2010: 26). Instead, many are checking online reviews on websites such as Goodreads.com and then following the link to Amazon.com and other online readers.
As a result, the e-book market in Australia is growing. Much quantitative research on book consumption is undertaken in the US and can be extrapolated to predict trends in the Australian market (Fisher 2010: 122). The Pew Research Center in America conducts surveys across the United States to gather information about Internet use. In 2013, the organisation surveyed trends in e-book consumption, revealing that the percentage of Americans who own a device for reading online content has grown from 43 per cent in September 2012 to 50 per cent in January 2013. Not only has there been a growth in ownership of e-readers, there was a rise in the percentage of American adults surveyed who had read an e-book in the past year – from 23 per cent to 28 per cent (Pew Research Centre 2013).
Delving deeper, Bowker Market Research undertook a study of e-book consumption and the emerging e-book market in Australia and nine other countries in January 2012. It found that adult fiction is the most popular genre for e-book consumption among those surveyed. Interviewees purchased an e-book over its print version because it was cheaper, saved space at home, was more portable and because of the ease of downloading (Thorpe-Bowker 2012: 11). According to the study, e-books appear to be bought by heavy readers but are not generally considered replacements for printed books, although it was revealed that “the more e-books respondents had bought, the more likely they were to have decreased or stopped spending on print books” (Thorpe-Bowker 2012: 11). These surveys emphasise that consumers are slowly warming to the concept of the e-book and are certainly willing to sample this new reading format on top of their habitual reading patterns.
Academics leading the case against the viability of the printed book, such as Sherman Young, argue that by eliminating the traditional print book, there is greater opportunity for authors to share ideas and meaning without being confined by publishers’ profit margins (Young 2007: 18). For those who agree, the advent of the e-book is a positive step towards liberating content, “digitising the world’s books will unlock their content from the silos of print, making them more accessible and enabling exciting new possibilities” (Young 2010: 133). Some academics are predicting the end of reading as we know it: “long before twenty years have passed, most of our reading will be done on e-readers or through material printed on demand” (Simons 2010: 15). As younger generations rely more and more on social networks than libraries for ideas and entertainment, trade publishers are facing not only a changing product, but also a changing consumer market.
Lee encourages publishers to view this change in book consumption as a sales opportunity:
Producing books in virtual form has the potential to open up new reading publics (read: new markets for publishers) by democratising access to a diverse range of works” (Lee 2008: 20).
With these figures in mind, trade book publishers are encouraged to provide digital content for those readers who can perhaps more easily purchase or sample a book online than in a bookshop.
Some academics would go further and argue that the increase in e-book consumption in the US and Australia signals a change in reading behaviour itself. Those same readers who prefer e-books are likely also using their online social networks such as Twitter and Facebook to determine their book choices and to share their own opinions on books purchased, both with other readers and in online interactions with authors. Reading will take on more characteristics of the way we use the Internet in every day life: “we will be less individualistic and more collaborative and community-minded” (Simons 2010: 16). Simons also hastens to add, with a hint of nostalgia, that this socialization of reading might be viewed as “an addition to the secluded, sustained absorption of text rather than a replacement” (Simons 2010: 16). It seems that sometimes even those heralding the end of the era of the printed book are loath to do so.
Interestingly, this hesitation to let the printed book be pushed asunder by the digital revolution reveals itself even in terminology used by academics on the subject. Those who consume printed books are, naturally, called readers, while consumers of online versions are deemed ‘e-book users’ (Fisher 2010, Young 2010, Thorpe-Bowker 2012). There appears to be an inherent divide between those who resist and those who embrace these digital technologies.
Indeed, those who resist and continue to read printed books are still a large force, and the question remains whether readers prefer the reading experience of a printed or digital book. Bowker’s survey on e-book consumption also reassured traditional print loyalists “the good news for publishers is that the purchase of e-books has had less effect on the purchase of print books than perhaps might have been expected. Over half of e-book users said their spending on print books had not really changed” (Thorpe-Bowker 2012: 11). The American reader appears to display similar purchasing tendencies: “though e-books are rising in popularity, print remains the foundation of Americans’ reading habits. Most people who read e-books also read print books, and just 4% of readers are ‘e-book only’” (Pew Research Centre 2013).
For the time being, e-books cannot achieve all of the requirements that book consumers have come to expect and appreciate from the printed book. Printed books are still preferred by readers who intend to read with children, or pass their books on to others. “Readers take it for granted that they can give books as presents, lend them to friends, sell them second-hand or even leave them in out-of-the-way places for strangers to find. But none of this is possible with Kindle files” (Lee, 2008: 19).
While these are physical qualities that e-books cannot yet replicate, others argue that the reading experience simply cannot be mimicked online. Readers with a preference for print surveyed by Bowker explain that they “prefer reading printed books, spend too long looking at the screen already, don’t like reading from a screen, [and] like owning printed books” (Thorpe-Bowker 2012: 11). These criticisms reiterate the assertion that books are read whereas e-books are used. Many readers still value the solitude of absorptive reading only experienced with a printed book, and do not appreciate that e-books are changing the way a book is read. It has been observed that “digital technology is also transforming reading from a famously solitary experience into a social one” (Pham and Sarno 2010: 3). The act of reading a printed book differs from an e-book not only in terms of the act of reading onscreen instead of physical pages, but also in that the online world is focused on connecting with others, while many seek the pleasure of reading in solitude.
When e-books are touted as the successors to the printed book, proponents must assume that there is something disappointing about reading, as it exists now. It may be more useful to view digital delivery as a separate method of reading that need not compete with the printed book at all. After all, “the act of reading abhors distraction, such as the Web-based enhancements – musical accompaniment, animation, critical commentary, and other metadata – that some prophets of the digital age foresee as profitable sidelines for content providers” (Epstein 2010). While the potential of e-books as offered by Epstein are exciting in themselves, there is merit in his argument that the reading experience is not actually enhanced. It may even be hindered.
The e-book is just one aspect of the changes in social interaction and consumer behaviour taking place as more and more people join the digital world. The Internet challenges traditional book publishing by providing Internet users with new ways to seek entertainment, to connect with those around them, and to express their own opinions, whether through social networks, online reviews or blog sites. With the plethora of options presented to readers, trade publishers face competition, but they are not facing replacement entirely. “The book industry has boundless knowledge and the proven ability to nurture and provide content, and should be best placed to ensure ongoing consumer engagement” (BICC 2013: 110). While being incorporated into the digital age by providing e-books and experimenting with e-book delivery, publishers must defend the printed book from those harbingers of its demise, by continuing to produce the printed book.
AppAdvice (2014) ‘Best iPad children’s books’
Book Industry Collaborative Council (2013) Final Report
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Jason Epstein (2010) ‘Publishing: the revolutionary future’, New York Review of Books, 57(4)
Jeremy Fisher (2010) ‘E-books and the Australian publishing industry’ Meanjin 69(3) Spring, pp. 117 – 124
Albert Greco (2005) The Book Publishing Industry. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
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Mike Shatzkin (2012) ‘The digital future still is a mystery if you don’t publish immersive reading’
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Sherman Young (2010) ‘It’s not the reader’ Meanjin 69(2) Winter, pp.128 – 133.