“The Death of the Book.” Or, not.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. “The Death of the Book” … or not. Many articles, books, scholarly tracts, and dissertations have been written on the subject and will continue to produce more words about the disappearance of words from books. And in spite of it all, the book is still alive and well. But, ok: “The death of the book” is more often than not a kind of shorthand for the many real and significant changes that we see happening as as result of new technologies and economic realities.

To that end, The Guardian has a number of interesting dispatches from the Edinburgh Book Festival including, “The death of books has been greatly exaggerated.” The very, very short version usually goes something like this: ‘ebooks are replacing printed books, the ebook will therefore replace the printed book, etc., etc.’ But to this, The Guardian decides to try a more empirical approach — “hang on a minute. Anecdotally, that’s a pretty awe-inspiring collection of proofs. But the plural of anecdote is not data. What is the data telling us?”

As we well know, it’s all about the narrative. Anecdotes tell one kind of story, and data can be used to tell many different kinds of stories. So which is it? One interpretation, takes a discerning eye upon the previous decade of UK book sales (although not including ebook sales yet), tells a surprisingly different story:

“According to Nielsen BookScan, the publishing industry standard for book sales data, book sales are pretty healthy … Ten years ago in 2001, 162m books were sold in Britain. Ten years later — a decade in which the internet bloomed, online gaming exploded, television channels proliferated, digital piracy rampaged and, latterly, recession gloomed — 229m books sold. So, a 42% increase in the number of books sold over the last 10 years.”

The book industry is in trouble, reports tell us, but more books have been sold …? The crucial question, of which the data still remains to be seen, is whether ebooks are in fact cannibalizing printed book sales as much as our collective perception tells us it is. This seems to be an open question — anecdotally the answer seems to be yes, but The Guardian’s response is sensibly for us to wait and see numbers before coming to that conclusion.

Then there’s the Amazon.com question. Amazon (worth a somewhat-humdrum $90 billion, according to The Guardian) is somewhat famous for keeping its sales figures close to the vest. Instead of absolute values, they prefer giving us pictures of relative values:

“In May this year, Amazon announced that, for the first time, it was selling more Kindle versions of books than paperback and hardbacks combined, and (here’s the thing that doesn’t get quoted so often) sales of print books were still increasing.”

Well that is interesting. The news about Kindle books outselling hardback books was oft-repeated, but I’d never heard that second part before.

Piracy is another pressure that is besetting the ebook industry. Piracy is a problem, and chances are it will continue to be a problem for the foreseeable future — yet many people tend to pair the example of the music industry’s struggles with piracy with the ebook piracy like a pair of ill-fitting shoes. It doesn’t quite fit. (Adrian Johns has a great treatment of this subject, Piracy: The Intellectual Property War from Gutenberg to Gates). One line of thinking is that piracy is simply more convenient, which is partly a result of not having more compelling options to buy — think of how the music industry and its consumers have in fact changed with the rise of iTunes.

One of the sexiest selling points for ebooks, and Kindle books, is that it provides instant gratification. We like instant gratification. So much so, that we’re willing to pay for it. Amazon’s Kindle has gone a long way towards making it easier and quicker to buying books:

“So is there not another view: that people are paying relatively high amounts for books a year before their paperback release, because they want them quickly on their digital devices? That convenience trumps pricing and format every time?”

There’s something else generally to be said about the business of ebooks. Some people just don’t plain don’t want to talk about it, because it’s creating an uncomfortable crossing of art and commerce: “There is a profound queasiness which breaks out at the conjunction of art and business.”

As we said, there’s a narrative to be traced through all of this. What that story is, is still being figured out. But since this is a story that involves human beings and human emotions (uncertainty, frustration, greed, etc.) the truth is likely to come out of some struggle between our objective and subjective accounts of what’s happening with ‘the death of the book’ —

“This, combined with the emergence of digital technology, creates enormous uncertainty. It’s a fact that the transition to digital devices will mean greater efficiencies and more focus on cost and, overall, a rather less generous publishing industry than before; a rather colder-hearted, fiercer one. The old world is fading, the new world isn’t yet in focus … It’s almost impossible for someone who has spent decades working in a calm, creative environment not to be enraged by the sight of American technology companies tipping everything on its head. But let’s not overdo things. Let’s not lose sight of the data we have, and let’s not invent data when we only have anecdotes.”

Also worth checking out from The Guardian — a lively and interesting open online Debate: The end of the book?

And finally — you might also be interested in “The Death of the Book” Tumblr page, which compiles the news — or epitaphs — it’s actually quite a handy archive.


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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

tyler shores cambridge

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