Nicholas Carr notes a steep decline in the growth rate of e-book readership, which increased at only 5 percent in the first quarter of 2013. E-books are still an expanding market—again this is a slowdown in the rate of growth, not a decline in overall sales—but Carr wonders whether they might soon reach at a plateau. He writes:
E-books are still taking share from printed books, sales of which declined by 4.7 percent in the quarter, but the anemic growth of the electronic market calls into question the strength of the so-called “digital revolution” in the book business. E-books now represent a bit less than 25 percent of total book sales. That’s a healthy share, but it’s still a long way from dominance. The AAP findings are backed up by a remarkable new Nielsen report indicating that worldwide e-book sales actually declined slightly in the first quarter from year-earlier levels—something that would have seemed inconceivable a couple of years ago.
Carr has number of thoughts about what might be contributing to this slowdown, and he’s particularly curious whether the success of multitasking tablet devices relative to dedicated e-readers is a factor. There’s a lot more to do with an iPad than just read e-books, which can’t really be said about the older generation of Kindle.
I suspect another point Carr raises may be more significant:
The early adopters, who tend also to be the enthusiastic adopters, have already made their move to e-books. Further converts will be harder to come by, particularly given the fact that 59 percent of American book readers say they have “no interest” in e-books, according to the Bowker report.
There’s more to this than just early adopters. The book-reading public is presumably disproportionately older (but see below) and therefore less likely than younger Americans to adopt new technologies quickly. A segment of middle-aged and older readers are more technologically adventurous than most, and that segment may indeed have already made their transition to e-books, while their peers aren’t interested at all in books without pulp and glue. The bigger question is what becomes of younger Americans: are they going to read books at all, and if they do, will they be more inclined over time to read e-books rather than bound ones?
Here’s what Pew reported in June from a study of library use by patrons under 30:
As with other age groups, younger Americans were significantly more likely to have read an e-book during 2012 than a year earlier. Among all those ages 16-29, 19% read an e-book during 2011, while 25% did so in 2012. At the same time, however, print reading among younger Americans has remained steady: When asked if they had read at least one print book in the past year, the same proportion (75%) of Americans under age 30 said they had both in 2011 and in 2012.
In fact, younger Americans under age 30 are now significantly more likely than older adults to have read a book in print in the past year (75% of all Americans ages 16-29 say this, compared with 64% of those ages 30 and older). And more than eight in ten (85%) older teens ages 16-17 read a print book in the past year, making them significantly more likely to have done so than any other age group.
I do wonder whether the study is really evaluating its demographics correctly. I would think that high school and college students are disproportionately likely to use a library, and those users will almost entirely be covered in the under-3o demographic. The same person as a student will use a library more often, and probably read more books, than that person will as a 30-something insurance salesman—or 30-something McDonald’s cashier, if we’re talking 21st-century jobs.
On the other hand, other data also suggest that younger Americans are more interested in books than their parents are, or at least spend more on them. Last year the Bowker research organization reported:
Generation Y, those born between 1979 and 1989, spent the most money on books in 2011, taking over long-held book-buying leadership from Baby Boomers. That’s according to the 2012 U.S. Book Consumer Demographics and Buying Behaviors Annual Review, the publishing industry’s only complete consumer-based report integrating channel, motivation and category analysis of U.S. book buyers. The Review, an information staple prepared by Bowker® Market Research and industry trade magazine Publishers Weekly, notes that GenY’s 2011 book expenditures rose to 30 percent—up from 24 percent in 2010—passing Boomers, 25 percent share.
I still think it’s fair to say the book-buying public skews older than the general public, since Boomers plus other adult cohorts is sure to be greater than the born-after-1979 book-buying blocs, and this influences the “early adopters” argument—in short, I expect to see gradually more “adopters” in successive generations—but it does look as if younger Americans are quite interested in print books as well as electronic ones.
Still, print books are going to face headwinds in the future as chain bookstores continue to close. I don’t hold out much hope for Barnes and Noble surviving another five years. Books aren’t going to vanish, of course: there’ll be good used bookstores, and yes, there’ll be Amazon, hiking its prices as its competition collapses. But there’ll be fewer places to buy print books overall, and that promises to make e-books more attractive and convenient by comparison—assuming “books” of a few hundreds pages are what even literate people really want to read on their devices.
I’ve been culling my own bookshelves recently, and doing so only reinforces to me how many books would be better at a third of their length. Instead of every book on, say, the first decade of the 20th century having to cover the same basic ground for the uninitiated before getting to what an author uniquely has to say, a much shorter electronic book could point the reader to an excellent introductory text elsewhere and then get on with whatever new content or perspective the author wants to offer. Books, by publishing convention, are larded with redundancies on the theory—quite right for the longest time—that a reader wouldn’t have introductory information at his or her fingertips. But with the Internet, everyone has access to the equivalent of a reasonably good public library at all hours of the day. This ought to permit nonfiction to be more tightly focused.
(I’m all in favor of good general surveys, but you only need or two of those for a particular subject or period—classic works, not every ambitious latter-day academic’s attempt to surpass the masters.)
I buy far more print books—mostly used—than e-books, in part because of the price of the latter and in part because most of the things I want to read aren’t available electronically at any price. If I seem cold-blooded in my assessment of the future of print, however, it’s because the sentimental side of paper and pulp is outweighed for me, in the most painfully literal sense, by the sheer mass of the books I’ve accumulated. Moving them, storing them, it’s all an enormous burden. My life would be much simpler if books were shorter, better, and mostly electronic.