The Old Road
Received wisdom is the worst kind of wisdom. Remember the wisdom that we only use 10% of our brain? Not true. There are all kinds of examples, but you get the point. Repeat a falsehood often enough and it becomes 'true'. Sometimes it's repeated because it's received wisdom, but sometimes it's repeated because of ulterior motives.
The Wheel's Still in Spin
In the print world the latest received wisdom is that ebooks have plateaued and may actually go into decline. That's certainly the belief of Tim Waterstone, founder of the well known chain of book shops.
But is that actually true? Ebook sales are still growing in America, the Telegraph article confirms that right after the quote above. Yes, ebook sales did fall in America in 2013, but book shop sales fell in 2014. Did you see that trumpeted in the same way as the news that ebooks had plateaued? This also highlights that it's risky to make long term predictions based on statistics accumulated over the course of a single year, and in a single country. If we look at the UK, then the ebook sales for the big 5 groups increased by 15.3% in 2014. Also taking a very different view to Tim Waterstone is the accounting group, PwC, who are predicting that by 2018 ebooks will be outselling print books.
Please Heed the Call
We should also consider who's talking most vigorously about ebooks plateauing. Tim Waterstone isn't a disinterested party, he's the founder of a chain of book shops. The last thing he wants, understandably so, is for his entire business to be threatened, let alone swept away. Similarly, at the London Book Fair in 2014, I attended a session in which ebooks were looked down upon by the panel, who spoke of on-demand printing as if it was a great leap forward. The panel included someone who'd spent their life in the print publishing of books and an independent book shop owner. Again, people whose livelihood either resides, or has resided, in print books. We're in the process of a great change now, a change that always happens with technological developments.
Let's take this opportunity to look at what's happening in other entertainment sectors. Music, for example:
In the UK, PC game downloads have already surpassed purchases of physical copies, with an estimated 92% of all PC game sales now being downloads. The trend in every other sector is of digital purchases advancing. Never mind how future generations will buy their entertainment, I haven't bought a physical copy of a game for over 6 years.
Any pleasure that people get from holding a physical copy of a book (which is in part a kind of security blanket so that we feel we're continuing to have a familiar experience, in my opinion) cannot last forever. The panel I mentioned at the London Book Fair mentioned the physical sensation of holding a book, but isn't that disingenuous when publishers strive to get books printed as cheaply as possible? What pleasure are we likely to gain from holding an object that's been bashed out by the lowest bidder?
Prophesising with my Blog
It's also not as if the traditional print publishing model for print books and ebooks greatly benefits anyone other than publishers. In 2014 Nicola Solomon, chief executive of the Society of Authors, said that income for professional authors in the UK has fallen 29% since 2005, and that just 11.5% of authors expected books to be their sole source of income, down from 40% in 2005. The article also highlights that the big advances go to a minority of authors, with many struggling with much smaller sums, to say nothing of the tiny percentages authors receive. These small percentages also covers ebook editions of their books where printing, transportation, and storage costs simply don't apply. No wonder so many authors are going independent, something that's demonstrated by the fact that 40% of all money from ebook sales on Amazon.com goes to independent authors.
Independent authors don't have to depend on Amazon and Barnes & Noble either. Rocket Polish can design an attractive, smartphone/tablet friendly website for you that comes complete with it's own store for you to sell your ebooks. You'll retain over 90% of each sale, helping you maximise your income. As an independent author, someone who has to be responsible for so much more than writing, you need all the outlets you can get, all the links you can build to maximise the chances of readers discovering you.
Don't Criticise what You Don't Understand
A lot of people feel threatened. They see their careers disappearing and their knowledge rendered irrelevant. Unfortunately, they can respond with aggression. This is far from uncommon. Look at how often new forms of media are blamed for wider societal problems, including real violence. I could write about this at length, but John Bain, the games commentator who uses the handle TotalBiscuit, has already covered this comprehensively:
Traditional forms of media see not just their careers, but their money and their influence slipping away. Remember the Luddites from your history classes? It may not be entirely cynical though. As TotalBiscuit suggests at the end of the video, people are scared. In my view they're scared not just because of the violence that's occurred, they're scared because of a generational shock, one they themselves were probably part of once. Whether it's rap, rock music, challenging literature, or theatre, one generation after another is scared by the generation that follows it. But they don't have to be. Maybe they'd be less scared if they tried understanding, instead of just pointing a finger because of societal problems that exist in a society that they helped shape.
Battle Outside Ragin'
What's the future for ebooks vs print books? We've seen the trend with other media and I'd expect the same thing to happen with books. I expect it to take longer (how much longer I'm too sensible to predict!) due to books being older and having more inertia around them. However, the direction of travel seems clear: the mass market will be ebooks, and hopefully by then they'll have shed the awful 'e' so that they're just called books. This doesn't mean the end of print books though! I think they'll be commodity/boutique/status items. Then books really might be truly pleasurable to hold as their printers become focused on providing quality and beauty not just in their words, but in their design and manufacture.
By no means though does this mean that the two forms of publishing are or will become incompatible. Instead, authors might be able to support limited print editions of beautiful, boutique editions with their greater digital sales. It doesn't have to be war out there, but maybe print publishers should remember lyrics from a certain song:
How do you think digital publishing is changing how we access entertainment? Tell me all about it in the comments.