Nathan Bransford, Author

Monday, February 25, 2013

Will Books Lose Out in a Tablet World?

One of my favorite predictions I have put down on pixel and screen is this one from 2007, when the Kindle had just been announced, e-book sales were virtually nonexistent, and the iPad was but a glimmer in Steve Jobs' eye:

In my opinion there will never be a widely used iPod of books, a device that people buy specifically for books -- e-books will take off when they can be easily downloaded and easily read on a device like a larger iPhone-of-the-future, something people already have, which evens out the economics since you don't have to plop down a significant chunk of money before you even buy a book. This would give e-books the decisive edge in economics, which might just tip the world of books toward e-books. Until then? Printed page for most of us.
I would argue that this is pretty much what has happened in the last six years. Yes, Kindles have sold pretty well and you see them around town, but they're nowhere near the ubiquity that iPods were in the mid-2000s. Print is still a majority even as Kindle prices dropped below $100. We haven't yet reached a majority e-book world, and it's still "printed page for most of us," as the last paragraph suggests.

And yet... I'm actually a little worried about this prediction.

The second part of the prediction is that e-book sales would reach a majority when most everyone has a  "larger iPhone-of-the-future," aka an iPad, iPad Mini, Nexus 7, Kindle Fire, Nook HD... you get the picture. 

We're almost there. There are now tons of tablets in the world. Apple sold 22.9 million iPads in the last quarter alone (link is to CNET, I work there, opinions here are my own). 

And yet growth in e-book sales seem to be leveling off. Even as people are buying more and more tablets, they're not reading more and more e-books. 

Some people, including Nicholas Carr in the previous link, see the leveling off of as proof that people are simply still attached to print books. I don't doubt that this is the case for many people.

My fear is that books are losing ground to other forms of handheld portable entertainment. Tablets should make it easier for people to read more because there is no delay between deciding you want to read something and being able to read it. It's (usually) cheaper to buy e-books. But that doesn't seem to be happening at the moment.

And this is where publishers have to realize that they are not competing against just books anymore when they're setting e-book prices.

Basically: Buy a new e-book for $11.99 or buy Angry Birds for $0.99? If you want to be entertained for six hours while you're commuting and you're cost conscious, that extra $10 goes a long way, and it adds up quick when you're talking about buying multiple books over time.

E-books have to be priced in a way that makes sense relative to its competition. They're not simply competing against other books anymore, they're competing against very very cheap (or free) forms of entertainment on the same device. Books and magazines aren't the only game in town for portable entertainment anymore.

I don't think the book world should be patting itself on the back that e-book sales have slowed. Yes, print books will absolutely still exist and people are still attached to them. But if people aren't reading books on tablets the book world will be in serious trouble as tablets become still-more ubiquitous in the future.

Art: Take Your Choice by John F. Peto


midnightblooms said...

You address something I've been wondering about and experiencing myself since the e-book price fixing suit/settlement went down and e-book prices went up.

E-books have a perceived value to me and I hesitate to pay more than that. A tighter budget compounds this issue and means my book purchases are more thoughtful and less impulsive now than they were six months ago.

And $11.99 for an e-book makes me pause and think, especially since I know that price will most likely drop when the paperback comes out in a year.

Tim Beckett said...

Hi Nathan,

I've often wondered the same thing. Personally I use e-books mostly for technical matters (I'm a web developer), content I send to my Kindle from the web, some magazines, and for travel (I do NOT miss having to cart around tons of books, either on the subway or plane/train) but I still prefer reading books.

However I do worry that it's not just competition with angry birds or any other time-wasters out there. Those have always been around to some extent. What I DO worry about, is the loss of a space to read, to write, to contemplate. Whether it be cell phones intruding on every single public space, video games or the relentless All-caps nature of the web, the space where writing, and reading, matters I fear is becoming less and less. Look at the decline of literature's influence in the last few years.

Maybe that's pollyanish of me, but it's what I see. Hopefully we'll reach some kind of balance in the years to come.



Stephsco said...

Good thoughts, I wonder the same.

I had an e-reader that went on the fritz and just upgraded to a tablet. I admit, I've mostly used the tablet for catching up with things like Top Chef's Last Chance Kitchen if I don't want to boot up my laptop. I check out ebooks from my library and load onto my device, but the selection is pretty small, and I usually have specific books I'm looking for. I hope that libraries get access to more ebooks, because I think that will help people convert to ebooks more. I use my library a lot; for the books I buy, I am usually buying print at a book event to support the author.

Stoich91 said...

I love this discussion; very thought-provoking.

I don't think there's anything to be concerned about for readers or writers (unless your a print publishing company or investor by day!).

So what if ebooks become all the rage? Readers (vociferous readers) only care about two things: Quality and Accessibility of reading materials. We will read magazines and toothpaste bottles and classic novels so long as they either make for quality reading, accessible reading, or, ideally, both. It doesn't matter if the words are printed on plastic or a digital screen or paper (I mean, it does, but common, let's be honest, that is mostly nostalgic, and although I love the smell of paper books, I love accessible and/or quality reading even more).

If the concern is that ebooks will cheapen the reading experience by virtue of e-ink vs. print, alone, than I very much disagree. If the fear is that lack of 'gatekeeper' print publishing companies or the 'gatekeeper' of the labor-intensive process of printing physical books, in general, will keep the quality of reading low, I think we ought to expect more of ourselves.

Even before the printing press, good stories were told and thrived. Ever after, there may be MORE stories, and thus cheapened quality, but there are still good stories out there despite changing technology, and that's the only thing to be worried about, in my opinion.

Maya Prasad said...

I too have been thinking that books might just go the way of the record. Just as you can now easily download just a single, and therefore the concept of the album is suddenly losing meaning, I wonder if books will slowly be transformed into something else. My sister showed me a children's "e-book" of Winnie the Pooh on her iPad, but although there were words on the screen, it was really made to be more like a movie. And it made me incredibly sad for kids and their imagination. I think if we want long-form books to be passed down the generations, then it is up to us as parents to transfer our love of books to our children.

Crystal said...

I just read that blog post yesterday. (So, speaking of futures and predictions...yeah...pretty sure I just changed the space-time continuum.)
E-book sells may be leveling off in the real world, but in the Education World it's the exact opposite. Most of my students now carry iPads and Kindles. My Outside Reading List is now emailed instead of handed out in class and contains links to purchase or download the books. Personally, I would much rather pay 9.99 and read a book on my Kindle than plop down $30-$40 for a hard copy. (But that's non-fiction. I feel rather wasteful paying for a fiction e-book I'm going to read in a couple hours. The library card is my friend.)
One of our major textbook suppliers announced at the beginning of this year that they would be phasing out their print department and instead would be encouraging all schools to buy their E-textbooks.
However, you are probably correct in that students would much rather be playing Angry Birds than reading about the First World War.

Taylor Napolsky said...

I don't think people read that much anyway, so that's why e-book sales are leveling off even though tablets continue to sell.

I doubt it's because people are reading less than they used to.

It's sad that books aren't as popular as movies or video games, but they're just not.

LCS249 said...

Just to add to your tracking data, we bought a Kindle Fire and returned it in favor a Kindle Touch. My wife uses that to read. I have an Asus Android Tablet (10") and I read on that. Hardly use the library any more ... especially after reading in the NYT that bedbugs are spreading via books. Eeek!

Tapper said...

I have a kindle touch with several books on it, but I only pull it out and dust it off for one reason- traveling. Since traveling with a library is awkward and expensive (suitcases are $25 a pop now) I settle for an e-reader on trips. But at home I cannot replace the experience of a paper book. It is tactile and real and something I can hand to my children someday and say "these words meant a great deal to me." I can't imagine bequeathing them my kindle and telling them how much I love my books.
You can buy anything on this planet online, but our stores are still crowded. We can order all our books from Amazon, but our Barnes and Noble is always busy. Shopping and selection is a social experience that people enjoy.
You can't download the smell of baking bread and hot cocoa from the corner cafe or the way a book feels in your hand when you carry it to the cash register.
I am an e-book owner, but with few exceptions, I am not an e-book reader.

ramblinbess said...

I think the problem is that people can't buy an ebook from any store, save it on any computer, and read it on any tablet. If that problem can be fixed, I think people will absolutely buy ebooks, and at $11.99. I guess it means open-source DRM that any ebook vendor can apply and a software program that works like iTunes but isn't only for one kind of file type.

Steve Masover said...

I guess I'm not convinced that price point is the key factor in many people's Angry Birds vs. Book decisions. Sometimes, in the short term, sure ... but in establishing long-term habits I think other factors are at play. I'd venture that more people are liable to become addicted to Angry Birds (and similar entertainments) than they are liable to become addicted to long-form written work, whether non-fiction or novels. But hasn't interest in long-form work always been more rare than simpler distractions?

Will addiction to Angry Birds and the like crowd out attention paid to work that requires sustained attention? Maybe. Maybe for some. Maybe for most, but "most" still leaves a significant audience for books, and book-lovers will find price points they can afford, as we always have.

I like potato chips. I also like to eat meals. I'll pay more for a meal than I will for a bag of potato chips, even though the potato chips are, in and of themselves, probably the more addicting 'food' ... and I don't think I'm alone.

Anonymous said...

I think we have to wait a few more years to see what happens. I always look at kids and I see the future. And you don't see many kids embracing print books these days. They all have tablets.

And, tablets weren't designed for e-books. Tablets were designed for many things, from social media to getting information on line fast. So we're really going to wind up right back where we started. People who read will always read, and most likely they'll be doing iton tabelts. People who don't read will be using their tablets for other things.

In other words, I never thought technology would make more people read. I only thought it would change the way people read. And, I wouldn't be investing in a small e-press anytime soon :)

robinellen said...

Yes! I love books, and I don't have e-readers (except for the Kindle app on my phone). I use my Kindle phone app all the time (so I don't have to tote a book with me on errands and such), but I notice other people playing games on their phones. I'm usually the only one reading. I have friends who have bought their kids Kindles (or Nooks or iPads), and I've *never* seen their kids reading on them -- they read print books; they play games on their devices (and they're usually playing games, not holding a book).

Sarah P. / Blurb is a Verb said...

This same thorny little idea: my novel versus Angry Birds, has been chasing itself around in my head for months.

I'm going to go find a paper bag to breathe into now.

Christi said...

I think people will continue reading whether Angry Birds is around or not. There have been distractions from long form reading for much longer than there have been free smart phone game apps (case in point: crossword puzzles, newspapers, card games, etc.). But then again, I'm the type of person who reads books instead of watching TV (shocking, I know), so maybe my views are outside the norm.

mkaka139 said...

I agree with Christi. Entertainment in the form of games and apps are on two seperate ends of the spectrum. I dont think people will stop reading all together simply because there are app out there. Interesting post though :)

Melissa Rosati, CPCC said...

In this digital world, I now buy more content than ever before. Take today for example, I bought one ebook to read on my iPhone. It is a business book. I bought one audiobook because I'm interested in the author but I know I won't have time to read the book. I would rather listen to it than miss the opportunity to enjoy a good story. Finally, I bought a print book to use for an important project because I want to mark it up for reference.

I love the digital world.

The best thing publishers can do is to negotiate distribution agreements as quickly as possible with tablet and mobile partners. This is how they will add more value to their relationships with authors.

The genie is out of the bottle. This reader is not looking back.

Melissa Petreshock said...

I think you make interesting points in this post given what I can say about my household.

My husband and I each own Kindle Fires. I download books on mine and the occasional game, though I buy at least as many print books as I do ebooks. However, my husband downloads movies, TV episodes, and tons of game apps on his, NOT ONE SINGLE BOOK.

The popularity of such devices does not necessarily equate to the popularity of ebooks. My sister has an iPad she likes to purchase a few books on, but anything she knows she loves and will want to reread, she prefers to purchase in print to keep on her bookshelf. Print books just feel cozier when there's an emotional attachment to them.

It is for that reason that none of my favored books are purchased in ebook format, and my Kindle Fire is full of random reads and guilty pleasures I don't necessarily want sitting out for anyone to see.

For me, I keep my silly app/game addiction on my iPhone... except for Angry Birds. They're easier to see on the Fire's screen. :)

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

I'd leave a long comment, but I need to go read a friend's manuscript on my Kindle Fire...

Regina Richards said...

I love print books. A few years ago I would have sworn I would always prefer them to digital books. But I only average one print book a month now while I buy multiple digital books every month. My Kindle is such a clutter-reducer, space-saver and money-saver. Plus having a portable library with me is fabulous since I tend to be reading 2-3 non-fiction plus 1-2 fiction books at a time and I like to take them with me wherever I go. I used to lug all that around in a big tote or decide before leaving the house which book to take along. Now I can take them all in a slim lightweight device that fits in a my purse. I have a feeling the eBook revolution isn't going to slow down. It may plateau for a while, but it's going to continue to grow in the future. I feel torn about that. There is something lovely and old-fashioned about paper books, but digital books are just so darn convenient.

DrEli said...

I still purchase print books for instructional manuals and books that I know I'm going to need to share with the faculty I work with. But all my fiction goes to my Kindle app on my iPad.

One of the frustration points for me is one you blogged about a few days ago and I missed commenting on...I think just as we resell our own used books, we should be able to purchase and resell previously read ebooks. I understand the issues surrounding this, but I always look in my library's ebooks to see if they have what I want to read for free before I consider purchasing. I'd love to be able to purchase an already read ebook.

I work at a new School of Medicine in charge of curriculum development and instructional technology. We will not have a physical book store on our new campus, nor will we sell physical textbooks. Everything will be eTextbook. The biggest question for me is which provider has the best eTextbook platform (note taking, anotations, both searchable and sharable, integrated media and quizzes, flashcards, etc). That company (not the publisher) will win the eTextbook race. It's no longer just the words on the 'page' that provide the experience, it is how the reader will interact with the functionality the ebook platform provides.


Angela @ HomegrownMom said...

As long as people keep writing great books, we'll keep reading them, right? My daughters and all their friends have iPods and/or tablets, phones, etc, but they still devour books and discuss them. I think the readers in each generation will continue to raise more readers. I can't imagine 6 straight hours to read... I'd be In Heaven!

Mira said...

So, first of all Nathan, you know I can't resist disagreeing that e-book sales are leveling off. I disagree for two reasons:

a. The WSJ article was based on research conducted in this link here:

Yes, the original research was entitled:

"E-book reading jumps, print reading declines".

How the conservative WSJ got, from that research, the idea that e-book sales are leveling off is a mystery only they can answer. I think the game of Twister was involved.

b. The only one who can really tell us what is happening with e-book sales is Amazon. And they aren't sharing their data, so we just don't know.

People can reassure themselves that e-book sales are leveling all, but there is nothing to support that!

Second, you are absolutely right that there are dangers to Publishers in pricing e-books too high; they are losing customers and strengthening the competition. They are also, unfortunately, hurting the authors that publish with them.

I admit I had steam coming out of my ears when I saw how high your books were priced, Nathan. Not on my account, of course I'm going to buy your book, but because it prices your book too high for MG, imho. That could potentially hurt your sales, and it makes me really mad, because your books are very good and deserve to be given the absolutely best chance in the marketplace.

And by not supporting you, Publishers are weakening themselves. They are under-cutting their asset, and the costs of that will move into the future.

So, for a number of reasons, pricing too high is just a really dangerous move on their part. It weakens their position - with authors, in the marketplace and against competitors.

Terin Tashi Miller said...

I agree with you 100%, Mr. Former Agent Man.
It's as I've pointed out as well: the major traditional publishers scoffed at ebooks and Amazon because, despite the really low cost to producing a book digitally these days technology being what it is, they missed the appeal of the Kindle revolution.
Kindles, and ebook reading, didn't necessarily explode because people love to read on a screen instead of turning pages!
It exploded because suddenly there was a way to carry large tomes, the newspaper, and magazines and Sudoku or whatever people used to entertain themselves with during long waits or just relaxing--and all in a lightweight package.
But it wasn't even or only convenience that launched the ereader revolution.
It was cost. There are books--you may not like them, they may in your opinion not be very good--you can download for free or 99c?
How much did Amanda Hocking charge?
If you could get Angry Birds for 99c, and a good novel, say, Pride and Prejudice, for 99c to $3, it would be a tougher choice than your $11 example.
Now, that's what Amazon figured out. And what the "major" publishers tried to stop. It's called "undercutting the competition." It's also called attracting cost-conscious consumers in an economic crisis.
I've mentioned before it's similar to the paperback revolution of the start of the last century.
Do you want to spread literature, and human understanding, to as many as possible? Or do you want to keep readinng, as a form of entertainment as well as education, for only those elites who can afford it?
The paperback revolution coincided with the spread of education beyond elites. A coal miner could and might have read War and Peace.
Not everyone in every country has access to the technological infrastructure that has made ereaders so popular in the U.S.
Until they do, likely paperbacks will out-sell ereaders.
But once they do?
If you offer it at a price they can afford, they will kill those Angry Birds...

Rick Daley said...

Tablets are outgrowing books, that's for sure, but will books go away?

Tough to tell. Streaming and kiosks killed Blockbuster, but people still watch movies. There is hope. I hope.

February Grace said...

I didn't read all the other comments due to limitations on the use of my eyes, so forgive me if I'm repeating what someone else has said already.

This made me think that apps like Wattpad, which offer readers instant, global access to more content than one could possibly read in a lifetime, are going to have an impact on eBook sales too.

Now eBooks are not just competing with games and other forms of tablet entertainment but also other books available for free, right now, anywhere readers have access to the internet...


Scott Atkinson said...

A thought: No matter how common they become, e-readers will still mostly be for the well-off in society, whereas books--used and from the library--are what is more likely to land in the hands of the less fortunate, particularly children.

There was a time when books were for only the elite, and then they became more accessible. I worry that in an e-book world--where libraries would struggle to be relevant--that we would return to something mirroring that time. I may be jumping the gun here, but I recently interviewed an author who was writing a book that would only be digital, and that was his concern, that poor kids would not be able to read it. I'm curious what others have to say about this.


Sevigne said...

The problem has nothing to do with e-books, tablets, or publishing. It has to do with this, and this alone: what is the value of reading over playing "Angry Birds" for 99 cents, or even for free?

Anyone can entertain themselves for six hours, if the sole goal of life and growing up, and becoming an adult is merely to entertain oneself. So, I ask again: what is the value of reading, over everything else that can temporarily distract our minds and emotions from the burden of living, and the joy of finding purpose in this world?

Sevigne said...

The problem has nothing to do with e-books, tablets, or publishing. It has to do with this, and this alone: what is the value of reading over playing "Angry Birds" for 99 cents, or even for free?

Anyone can entertain themselves for six hours, if the sole goal of life and growing up, and becoming an adult is merely to entertain oneself. So, I ask again: what is the value of reading, over everything else that can temporarily distract our minds and emotions from the burden of living, and the joy of finding purpose in this world?

Sevigne said...

Sorry about the double post. I thought captcha had done the usual thing it does when I type it incorrectly, and that it had wiped out the comment.

Mira said...

@ Scott.

You know, I had the same concern. I was worried digital technology could be very dangerous, making reading a class issue even more than it is, because of the expense of buying the e-reader.

But I recently read some articles about what is happening globally (I'm so sorry I don't remember where they are, so I can't link them), and what they've found is that in some cultures - Africa, for instance - e-books are actually easier and more accessible. That's because alot of Africans, even the impoverished, have cell phones. And you can download apps and free books on cell phones.

In addition, there are some libaries being built that allow people to come in and read on digital technology. I think the first all digital library just opened in some little town in Texas. And everyone still will (hopefully) have access to libraries.

Digital technology for libaries makes sense because of storage, accessibility, even dusting. :)

Also, I predict that e-readers will keep getting cheaper and cheaper, until you can pick one up for 10 bucks at the drug store - or even get one for free from some site doing a promotion.

So, I could be wrong, it still might be something to worry about, but I was reassured by these things. I think it is a very valid concern, though!

L Y Yahiku said...

When thinking about the future of ebooks, I can't help but look to my kids. Although I readily download books at midnight, just because I can, my 8 and 14 year-olds have not made the switch. I've nudged. We have multiple tablets in the house as well as a Kindle, and still, they choose paper. My personal reason for switching had to do with clutter, but if you look around their rooms, it's clear that they are not of that mindset.

We drove an hour to Barnes and Noble two days ago as a treat. The Borders in town closed and nothing came along to replace it. We used to make a weekly ritual of shopping there with the kids. But now when we make the trip to Portland, it's not the same. They only seem to carry the best sellers and the offerings change very little even when it's been a month or two since we made the trip. Both of my kids are becoming Amazon converts and ask me to look things up for them that friends had or that they saw in the library.

My gut tells me they'll eventually switch only because it's so hard to find what they want in paper without ordering it online and having to wait.

Kevin Jones said...

No doubt that print books have their own unique position but the comfort which I get with my kindle is amazing. Here I can save many books at the same time and carry them every time where ever I go.

Want to buy this device??
take a visit at Readershop.

Related Posts with Thumbnails