Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

January 5, 2013

The future is e-books!

Filed under: Books,Culture,e-books — Razib Khan @ 4:12 pm

Nicholas G. Carr, purveyor of high-brow neo-ludditism and archeo-utopianism, has a piece out in The Wall Street Journal, Don’t Burn Your Books—Print Is Here to Stay. The subtitle is “The e-book had its moment, but sales are slowing. Readers still want to turn those crisp, bound pages.” Here are some of his rancid chestnuts of un-wisdom:

… Hardcover books are displaying surprising resiliency. The growth in e-book sales is slowing markedly. And purchases of e-readers are actually shrinking, as consumers opt instead for multipurpose tablets. It may be that e-books, rather than replacing printed books, will ultimately serve a role more like that of audio books—a complement to traditional reading, not a substitute.

What’s more, the Association of American Publishers reported that the annual growth rate for e-book sales fell abruptly during 2012, to about 34%. That’s still a healthy clip, but it is a sharp decline from the triple-digit growth rates of the preceding four years.

The initial e-book explosion is starting to look like an aberration… 2012 survey by Bowker Market Research revealed that just 16% of Americans have actually purchased an e-book and that a whopping 59% say they have “no interest” in buying one.

From the start, e-book purchases have skewed disproportionately toward fiction, with novels representing close to two-thirds of sales…Screen reading seems particularly well-suited to the kind of light entertainments that have traditionally been sold in supermarkets and airports as mass-market paperbacks.

Readers of weightier fare, including literary fiction and narrative nonfiction, have been less inclined to go digital. They seem to prefer the heft and durability, the tactile pleasures, of what we still call “real books”—the kind you can set on a shelf.

…In fact, according to Pew, nearly 90% of e-book readers continue to read physical volumes. The two forms seem to serve different purposes.

Having survived 500 years of technological upheaval, Gutenberg’s invention may withstand the digital onslaught as well. There’s something about a crisply printed, tightly bound book that we don’t seem eager to let go of.

An immediate issue with this op-ed is that it engages in shell games with quantities. Starting from a baseline of zero a new technology will undergo incredible rates of initial growth in adoption. But this will level off rather quickly. A 34% rate is still indeed healthy, and a sign I think that the explosive phase is giving way to robust and expansionary growth as the market slouches toward maturation. Other data in the piece seem to me to be irrelevant red-herrings. People who read e-books tend to be readers, so naturally one would expect that they read physical books. Most people with e-books have extensive personal libraries, and many works which they already own are not in e-book formats, or, are expensive in e-book formats (e.g., I have textbooks which I purchased for more than $100, which are discounted 50% for e-books, so they still come in at $60!). Additionally, asking all Americans about reading is rather misleading. A small proportion of the public are intense readers, with most being casual at best, if they read at all.
To the left is a figure I generated from an AP/IPSOS survey on American book reading habits in 2006. As it is a self-report this probably overestimates the reading habits of the general public, as well as the nature of what they read. 25% of Americans admitted reading no books in a year, while the median number of books read was 6.5. This I think gets at the heart of why e-books aren’t as popular as you might expect: books are’t that popular! The typical entry-level e-reader runs in the $50 to $100 range. This initial fixed cost is heavily subsidized because the makers of these devices want you to purchase content from them. But consider that the average American reads on the order of 5 books a year.  And Daniel McCarthy brings up the important issue that you need to analyze the trends across age cohorts; most readers are older, but most future readers are not going to be from the older cohorts. Some of these books that people read are likely to be relatively cheap mass market paperbacks or library books, but assuming on average $20 per book, the expenditure of Americans on new books per year is going to be about the same as an e-reader. These devices are not without hassle or risk, they break or malfunction, and, there are the notorious issues with digital rights.

So why e-books? Interestingly Carr asserts those who read more “serious” books prefer the physical medium. I’d like to see more analysis of this. Certainly I am of the opposite opinion. Though I don’t read mass market science fiction or fantasy paperbacks anymore, these $8 purchases are the sort which I would run through once, never to revisit. I don’t need to have something in my digital library if I never revisit it. This is in contrast to meatier references and classics. But for someone who reads a lot one of the biggest hassles of physical books is storage and retrieval. I’m an avid user of libraries, and am assiduous about making a trip to the used book store every few years, but even I nevertheless have a relatively cumbersome collection of texts which I have to transport on every occasion that I move. In addition, any travel plans would often result in my deciding how many books I could stow before it became more of a nuisance than a boon.

Because I do much of my reading on a Kindle I’ve accrued a massive portable library of classics, most of which I purchased for a few dollars at most. I’d wager that the number of people who would actually read War and Peace all the way through (as opposed to being seen reading it, or mentioning offhand that they’re reading it) would be facilitated by its packaging in a less cumbersome format. Contrary to the waxing of someone like Nicholas Carr about the tactile physical experience of a book I’ve never enjoyed the fact that works of more than 500 pages tend to be unwieldy. This is not an abstract concern for me, I’m an intellectual generalist who has a taste for very expansive surveys on a variety of academic topics. Both A History of the Byzantine State and Society and The Structure of Evolutionary Theory would benefit from not being in a physical format (the latter is heavier than my laptop in hardcover!). Not only is the reading experience made difficult by the mass of the book, but the long term physical integrity of the work is often endangered by the reality that the number of pages tends to exceed the capacity of the binding of the spines.

What of the musty pleasures of the scroll?

Finally, there’s the issue of what e-books are in relation to various other forms of books, printed or audio. I think the analogy to audio books is totally ridiculous; e-books and printed books are fundamentally the same thing, only in somewhat different physical formats. Additionally, the printing press was a quantitative, not qualitative, change. It took the codex format, which attained popularity in late antiquity, and elevated it to the level of mass industrial production. The big change in qualitative formatting was the move from the scroll to the book over 1,000 years earlier. Prior to this there was the shift from the antique Near Eastern forms of writing, such as cuneiform or hieroglyph on heavy non-portable medium, to alphabetic script on papyrus. The alphabets packaged in a light scroll allowed for literacy to be more broadly accessible to the higher orders of society, rather than just the specialized vocation of a scribal class. Reading has always been subject to periodic revolution. I am dismayed by the fixation of some on the physical medium of the book, as opposed to the information content of the book. If the smell of paper and the tactile experience of a hardcover jacket is so critical, then I think consumers of text are missing the point somewhat. Frankly, it makes me think that the term “book slut” is more than metaphorical. Many of the lovers of the physical porn linger longingly upon vivid descriptions of smell and texture of the page in a manner which is reminiscent of what “food porn” factories such as the Food Network indulge in.

All that being said there are genuine concerns with the transition to e-books, in particular the scope of intellectual property, and the possibility of monopolistic domination of the sector by a firm such as Amazon. The struggles of the Nook should worry those who appreciate the spur and pressure which competition forces upon companies, though one must remember that e-book consumption occurs across a variety of platforms (e.g., I can read my Kindle books on the phone, computer, and Kindle, as well as tablets). A more substantive concern is the control which we cede to Amazon when we purchase e-books in their specific format. These are real difficulties which we need to address over the next decade, but I think they’re surmountable, and will be resolved. Information is too important to simply abdicate all control of the means of production to a few firms.

If Nicholas Carr truly believes what he’s saying, I’m curious if he’d be willing to make a bet on the market penetration of e-books in 2017. I suspect the reality is that op-eds such as this are expressions of his sentiment and preference, not a genuine prediction rooted in an understanding of how the world is, as opposed to how an individual might want the world to be.

Addendum: Unlike CDs I believe that physical printed books will persist for the indefinite future. There are some works which are important references where I think many people will want to have in physical format not tied into technology and stored in a cloud. But, the number of these works will be small, and most people will not have any physical books aside from the Bible or a religious text, which has sacred value. Interestingly this will result in a physical reversion to the state of affairs of a few hundred years ago, when for most households the only book might have been of a religious nature.

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