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August 13, 2010 • eBooks, Editorials

Is the Paper Book Dead?

There’s been quite the firestorm of debate over the future of the printed word recently. With the new Kindles selling out and Apple selling iPads like crazy, everyone is tripping over each other predicting the end of the road for paper. But is it really time to say goodbye, or are predictions of paper book’s death greatly exaggerated?

In my opinion, there’s a few areas that need to hit a “tipping point” before ebooks truly overtake paper books in all areas. Price, audience, software, and content all need to come together. And it’s important to remember that ebooks fall into a category of their own that is slightly different from other digital media. Unlike the music and DVD migrations from physical to digital, books never required anything more than the book itself and maybe a lamp in a dark room. Buying ebooks means convincing a consumer that both the hardware AND the content are worthwhile.

Digital Rights Management/Format Wars:

This is a huge obstacle. One of the biggest complaints that comes up time and again with ebooks is the fragmentation of the content resources. If you bought books years ago in Peanut Press/eReader/Fictionwise format you’re ok (for now) since B&N has kept that rights management system alive. On the other hand, if you bought Mobipocket or Microsoft LIT books, you’re out of luck reading those books on any modern device. At times it feels like a roll of the dice to pick a bookstore. Forget paper books being phased out in 5 years…will your ebookstore of choice even make it that long?

Teleread reported recently on Cory Doctorow’s fight to sell DRM-free ebooks in B&N, Amazon, Kobo, Apple and Sony’s stores. B&N, Amazon and Kobo all okayed it, as did Doctorow’s publisher Macmillan. Apple and Sony refused, apparently believing it’s more important to lock down books than sell them according to the publisher and author’s wishes.

I’ve said this before, but it’ a safer bet to go with Amazon or B&N over Apple for flexibility alone, and knowing that the former two are looser towards rights management is just another great reason. Still, most people aren’t sitting down and making detailed comparison lists; they just know B&N books don’t work with Kindles, and they need a different program for each store they want to use on their iPad. Until we reach the point where there’s an interchangeable standard that’s easy to back up and access without fear your books may get “turned off” one day, it’s going to be tough to move the entire book market.

Pricing:

This needs to get straightened out before ebook adoption really hits high-speed. Putting aside hardware costs, ebook pricing needs to differentiate by a decent amount over paper pricing. Look at the success ebooks had at $9.99 for hardcovers!

Even with the agency pricing model raising prices, ebooks still stunningly outsold hardcovers at Amazon this past spring and summer. That’s huge, but think about it this way: even buying from B&N’s bestseller list you’re likely to pay somewhere in the range of $16-$20 for a discounted hardcover. If an ebook costs $9.99 or $12.99, it’s still a dramatic savings over the hardcover, and that makes it an easy sell.

But hardcovers don’t drive the entire book market. The soft squishy mainstream of book sales are in quality paperbacks and mass markets. And that’s where the ebook price divide shrinks much, much smaller. I didn’t sit down to do a huge comparison, but here’s a handful of random samples:

Charlaine Harris’s “Dead and Gone”: eBook $6.99, paperback $7.99
Chris McDougall’s “Born To Run”: eBook $9.99, paperback $10.12
Neal Bascomb’s “The Perfect Mile”: eBook $9.99, paperback $5.98

Obviously this is just a random sampling, but the point is that when you’re saving only a dollar or two over buying the paperback, and you’re a more casual reader, it’s very tough to justify an ebook reader. Yes, there’s convergence devices like the iPad and smartphones, but even then you’re assuming that the convenience and comfort of reading on that device trumps just carrying a paperback for those sporadic times you read a book.

Finally, there’s the real elephant in the room in this debate; used bookstores and libraries make it very cheap to free to read a book. While library catalogs are slowly digitizing, unless you’re lucky enough to be a NY Public Library member it’s not likely your library has an earth shattering selection of ebooks. So paper books in libraries are still important. Plus, no ebook is as great (or as fun to find) of a deal as a dusty book from a used bookstore for $1.50. If you’ve ever been to “The Strand” in New York City, you understand the awesome power of browsing “18 miles of books”, many of which are significantly cheaper than their ebook counterparts.

Audience:

eBooks are great, but there’s a few audiences and book genres that aren’t benefiting (yet). While there have been a few kid-centric ebook readers, no one’s really cracked the problem of how to make an ebook reader relatable for the picture-book crowd. Part of the problem is that kids books are colorful and illustrated; that eliminates eInk as a good contender. And while there are some iPad “books” for kids, most parents aren’t inclined to hand over a $500+ device to a young child every time they want to read. Unfortunately, the widespread adoption of children’s books is mostly being held back by technology; until there’s a durable color screen (mirasol, liquavista, etc) it’s unlikely that you’re going to be buying “Don’t Let The Pigeon Drive The Bus” via Whispernet anytime soon.

The other audience is the elderly and non-tech savvy. On a one-off basis there have been some great stories of people well into their 90s and above who have fallen in love with an iPad or a Kindle DX thanks to the adjustable fonts and easy to read screens. And getting Kindles into Target stores and setting up more user-friendly nook stations at B&N are both going to help drive sales. But what’s really needed are hands-on classes and demos. Apple nailed this with their iPhone ads that showed exactly how to use the device. Imagine if you’re on the fence about buying a nook, or you’re dead set against it…but you notice your local B&N is offering a “class” on how to use it and the benefits. If you want to convince people to break free from paper books, you need to make them incredibly comfortable with the change. And people who are not tech savvy or interested in trolling message boards and reviews need to be exposed to ebook readers in as comfortable an environment as possible.

And there’s almost always going to be people who simply won’t switch to ebooks. Either they’re casual enough readers that they simply can’t or won’t justify the costs for the hardware, or they simply love physical books. Barring some sort of major change in attitude, I can’t imagine my mother ever switching to ebooks (the merest suggestion led to a 20 minute monologue about how special paper books are). While hardcore paper book lovers may not keep an entire chain up and running, they’re certainly going to keep buying, and as long as they open their wallets B&N, Amazon, Borders and others will still be happy to serve them.

Content:

This is the biggest obstacle. Playing delayed release games with ebooks, fighting in court over who owns ebook rights, or just plain holding out (ahem, JK Rowling), aren’t doing ebooks any favors. Is the digitization of books a mess from a legal perspective, since many author contracts didn’t take that into account years ago? Absolutely, but that’s not something the consumer knows or understands. All it means is that books aren’t in ebook form, or are in exclusive ebook form at one store only, or some other mess. I’m not as against exclusive content deals as some people, but I do think they are a short-term solution as bookstores grapple for dominance.

However, delaying ebook releases doesn’t stop people from going out and buying the ebook; it just means they wait until the book is available in ebook form. Publishers need to stop treating ebooks as another stop on the hardcover–>paperback–>mass market train. Traditional publishing has always thought of it through those steps because consumers fell somewhere along that line in terms of book interest and price point. eBooks shatter that because if you have a way to read it on an ebook reader or an iPad, you’re more likely to want to take advantage of those devices. When ebooks stop being treated as part of the paper book line, and as more of a counterpart, that’s going to provide a huge boost to ebook adoption. Publishers control the content, and when they put their weight behind digitization it’s going to remove many of the roadblocks to widespread adoption.

Conclusion:

Honestly, I think the various declarations of “Print is dead in 5 years/10 years/already dead” are missing the broader picture. There are many moving pieces to making digital books dominant, and they aren’t as simple as “prices go down/availability goes up”. Consumers need to be comfortable with ebooks, the content and hardware need to work well together, and the most important part is remembering that just because ebooks may become dominant does not mean paper books are going to disappear.

If I had to predict the future of bookstores and paper books, I’d say look at a store like The Strand in New York City, or Powell’s in Portland, Oregon. These aren’t just stores, they are destinations every reader should visit. They’re bookstores run by people who love books, and that love of books is soaked into every shelf and wall. It’s an experience, not just another bookstore. That’s the future of bookstores, in my view, a place where the book buying experience is something worth visiting. We are a tactile species, and just like vinyl records have survived because they bring something warm and different to music, paper books will survive as well.

Don’t misinterpret this; I firmly believe there will be a tipping point where ebooks will sell more than paper books, but I think I would err on predicting it happening several years in the future. Remember, buying a paper book has a very low barrier to entry; if you have $7.99, or $15.99, or $19.99, you have your book. As much as it seems like every single person in the world owns a smartphone and/or an iPad, that’s not the case, and even of those people who do, not everyone is reading on those devices or know they can read on them. It’s a long road ahead, and I don’t think the world is quite ready to let go of pulp and ink…

What do you think? Am I selling the scope of ebooks short, or do you think paper will hang on for many years to come? Have you switched entirely to ebooks, or do you know someone who has? Conversely, do you know of people who swear they’ll never stop reading paper books? Share your stories, experiences and thoughts in the comments!

2 Responses to " Is the Paper Book Dead? "

  1. The other thought that comes to mind regarding the audience & content is ‘lending’. I know B&N has *something*, but look at it this way – when I browse the LendMe books, MOST are the B&N Classics (i.e. Gutenberg books!). My wife loves her nook – and the in store kiosk with extremely helpful young woman were major factors in her finally letting me buy her one – but she and her sister and our niece can’t lend ebooks the way they have always lent paperbacks. I know that there need to be restrictions – but I really thought the ‘one time to one person for 2 weeks’ thing was a reasonable compromise. But only if you can actually use it! Of the books we’ve bought to read since getting her nook, NONE have been lendable!

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