There is an unsettling myth being perpetuated about the death of print books. The news of print’s demise is simply not true. It sounds a bit like Mark Twain having to write a note to a reporter saying “The report of my death was an exaggeration.”
To fully explain I need to start with the music industry.
The impression is that all sales are now digital. And iTunes has killed the physical CD. This is not true.
Approximately 12 songs fit on a CD. And since individual songs can be downloaded, the only way to compare physical CD sales with download sales is to divide the number of songs downloaded by 12. That way you have a one-to-one comparison.
With that assumption in place, Apple is the #1 retailer of CDs in America. No surprise. The surprise is that they only comprise 25% of sales. Walmart is #2 at 14% and Best Buy is #3 (my guess is that Amazon.com is #4 but wasn’t mentioned in the article).
Why is that surprising? Because that means 75% of all sales are still “hard copy.” Physical CDs. It is significant that Apple’s share has increased as a percentage of all sales from 21% in 2008, up from 14% in 2007. But it still means the physical product is outselling the digital by 3 to 1. (In total dollars, across all forms of music, digital downloads comprise only 35% of all music sales.)
Turn that same conversation to the book industry. The Amazon Kindle has impact primarily because they were first and did create a pretty cool device (I bought one the week it came out in Fall 2007 and upgraded in 2008). The Barnes & Noble Nook is shipping with reports of modest success. The Sony Reader has its followers. Plastic Logic just announced their cool tablet sized reader. And everyone is wondering what Apple will announce in the near(?) future regarding their answer to the “hardware” question. But despite this we really don’t have an “iPod” equivalent. Mike Hyatt, CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishers, wrote in 2005 that we are “one device away from a digital revolution.” In my opinion we are still waiting for that device. The iPhone is not the answer for most people. The screen is simply too small. And for someone like myself who reads rather fast it can be very annoying…
Don’t get me wrong. My head isn’t buried in the sand. That revolution is coming and some would say it is already here. But the “tipping point” has yet to occur.
Amazon had a lot of fun announcing that they sold more digital books than physical books on Christmas Day 2009. Think about it. On Christmas Day recipients of the Kindle opened their gift and downloaded stuff while playing with their new toy. But who else would be shopping on Christmas Day? No one. So while it made a fun press release it really isn’t as astounding as it first sounded.
I see the royalty statements. I know exactly how many digital versions of my client’s books are being sold. And while there are a lot more sold than there were two years ago (of course there would be) the volume is still less than 1% of the print version sold. LESS THAN ONE PERCENT.
So let’s do some math. Let’s say that e-books have 100% growth in the next year. That would mean they would comprise 2% of all sales. Then let’s say it grows by 100% again, to 4%. We have to keep doubling the number for 4 years before we get to a little less than 20% of all print sales. But that still means that 80% of all sales are still hard copy. Eighty percent.
Certainly this revolution could happen and is quite likely. The implications are huge, especially for the newspaper and magazine community. But it does not mean that print books are dead.
It is even possible that in one generation (twenty years) that the conversion will take place..at least in some form or fashion. If the e-book reader cost drops to under $100. If the device is in every home, on each family member’s nightstand. If the younger generation’s textbooks are placed into e-book format and that generation becomes used to it. A lot of “ifs.”
It is a very exciting time to be in the publishing industry. I almost get giddy when thinking about the possibilities.
If you want to read someone who will challenge every assumption you’ve ever made about “curling up” with your favorite book, get a copy of Print is Dead by Jeff Gomez. Get a group of friends together to talk about his conclusions, I guarantee a rousing discussion. If you want to learn how the music industry was ambushed by technology read Appetite for Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age by Steve Knopper.
All I’m trying to say is that we need to stop buying into the myth that books are dead. It simply is not true. We are being influenced by the flood of media attention on the “new” and the “cool” and not looking past the sound bite. It is like relatives or friends writing to say “I saw that there was a flood in Phoenix…are you okay?” Yes. It flooded…in an area with a river wash and someone tried to drive thru it and got stuck. That picture hit the national news. The media gave the impression that the entire city was under water with their breathless coverage. So when you read that publishers are going under, and print books are dinosaurs, and all authors need to rethink everything…take a deep breath. It is different. It is a time of careful consideration. No publisher wants a repeat of what happened to the record industry. But it is not as bad as you think.
In the end I implore you not to be one who helps perpetuate the myths and misinformation.