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What’s the Matter with Ebooks?

31 March 2015

From Dan Cohen, Executive Director of the Digital Public Library of America:

Over the past two years I’ve been tracking ebook adoption, and the statistics are, frankly, perplexing. After Amazon released the Kindle in 2007, there was a rapid growth in ebook sales and readership, and the iPad’s launch three years later only accelerated the trend.

Then something odd happened. By most media accounts, ebook adoption has plateaued at about a third of the overall book market, and this stall has lasted for over a year now. Some are therefore taking it as a Permanent Law of Reading: There will be electronic books, but there will always be more physical books. Long live print!

I read both e- and print books, and I appreciate the arguments about the native advantages of print. I am a digital subscriber to the New York Times, but every Sunday I also get the printed version. The paper feels expansive, luxuriant. And I do read more of it than the daily paper on my iPad, as many articles catch my eye and the flipping of pages requires me to confront pieces that I might not choose to read based on a square inch of blue-tinged screen.

. . . .

[R]un through a simple mental exercise: jump forward 10 or 20 or 50 years, and you should have a hard time saying that the e-reading technology won’t be much better—perhaps even indistinguishable from print, and that adoption will be widespread. Even today, studies have shown that libraries that have training sessions for patrons with iPads and Kindles see the use of ebooks skyrocket—highlighting that the problem is in part that today’s devices and ebook services are hard to use. Availability of titles, pricing (compared to paperback), DRM, and a balkanization of ebook platforms and devices all dampen adoption as well.

But even the editor of the New York Times understands the changes ahead, despite his love for print:

How long will print be around? At a Loyola University gathering in New Orleans last week, the executive editor [of the Times], Dean Baquet, noted that he “has as much of a romance with print as anyone.” But he also admitted, according to a Times-Picayune report, that “no one thinks there will be a lot of print around in 40 years.”

. . . .

The tea leaves, even now, are hard to read, but I’ve come to believe that part of this cloudiness is because there’s much more dark reading going on than the stats are showing. Like dark matter, dark reading is the consumption of (e)books that somehow isn’t captured by current forms of measurement.

For instance, usually when you hear about the plateauing of ebook sales, you are actually hearing about the sales of ebooks from major publishers in relation to the sales of print books from those same publishers. That’s a crucial qualification. But sales of ebooks from these publishers is just a fraction of overall e-reading. By other accounts, which try to shine light on ebook adoption by looking at markets like Amazon (which accounts for a scary two-thirds of ebook sales), show that a huge and growing percentage of ebooks are being sold by indie publishers or authors themselves rather than the bigs, and a third of them don’t even have ISBNs, the universal ID used to track most books.

The commercial statistics also fail to account for free e-reading, such as from public libraries, which continues to grow apace. The Digital Public Library of America and other sites and apps have millions of open ebooks, which are never chalked up as a sale.

Link to the rest at Dan Cohen and thanks to Dave for the tip.


60 Comments to “What’s the Matter with Ebooks?”

  1. Can’t be sure about figures. The decline in readership for all formats obscures the data for e-books/print.

    I personally prefer print. Never warmed up to something that needs constant recharging.

    • “Constant recharging?” I charge my Kindle every couple of weeks.

      • I can only read half a book on my Kindle Fire before it goes dead. Then I have to switch to my phone while the fire charges. I still prefer e-books though. My nook e-ink lasts longer of course but it’s a hassle getting my books on there these days since I buy from Amazon most of the time.

        • Sounds like your battery’s pretty much fried.

        • Like Dan said, that doesn’t sound right and my own Fire doesn’t behave that way at all. Contact Amazon’s support team.

        • Terescia: I have a very simple Kindle, and after three years, it still holds a charge for two to three weeks. I use it extensively.

          Pro tip: Keep reading on your Kindle while it charges. I’ve done that a few times now (I got a cable that fits into a normal socket), and it charges much faster that way. I don’t how, but it certainly doesn’t need hours to get back to full charge.

        • Could be a bad battery, but it’s possibly an apps issue. Shut down any pre-installed ones you don’t use. Find an app such as Advanced Task Manager.

      • True to its advertising, my Kindle Voyage goes days, sometimes almost a week, without needing recharging, and that’s with lots of page turns. Although my Kindle Fire can do a lot more, it’s gotten very little use since the Voyage arrived.

        • I’m loving my Voyage, but the battery goes down a LOT faster than it did on my previous Kindles. I generally charge it every three or four days just to keep it topped off. Beyond battery life, I can’t imagine what Amazon can do to improve future generations of the Kindle.

          • Love my Voyage, too. Battery-wise, do you keep it in airplane mode? Keeping it in that mode except for when you need to sync or download helps a lot with how long a charge lasts.

          • I think as technology on batteries improves, that will fix this. We’ll hold a charge for months, one hopes. 😀 But even so, I have a spot in my living room where I keep my Kindles and while one is charging, I use another. When that one needs recharging, I swap them out. Since the Kindle syncs to where you read, I just carry on. No biggie. I do forget to turn off the wifi and I always use the brightest setting (a bit of cataracts), but with swapping out, I am always ready to read my ebooks.

            I used to be the “I will never give up print” zealot. Yep. I remember being very snotty about it. But that was back when readers were not all that great. I have a library of thousands of books and they please me.

            Well, guess what? I love the convenience of my ereader and how well my 6 inch now-gen Kindle Fire fits in my purse. Read it during the 2.5 hours at the doc’s yesterday while waiting and while getting my nebulizer treatments. I had a choice of hundreds of reads. Nice.

            I will say that as much as print can be beautiful, aesthetically pleasing, it also has drawbacks–my older books ( I have some from the 1800s and a lot from the 50’s through 70s) get yellow, some have holes from bookworms, and the not-all-that-gorgeous-anyway paperbacks don’t age very well. And when we had a bit of flooding, some of those books ended up all rippled (I had to blowdry and open some to get them to dry out.) My Kindle books are stored with Amazon. A hurricane could strike and my elibrary is intact.

          • Theoretically we may see ebook readers where the screen is also a solar cell panel and never need recharging until they break. Kinda like the really cheap blisterpack calculators.

    • The not-that-many-people-read anymore argument is a bit of–well–fiction. Yes the percentage of people who have read a book in the last year is down from what is was 20 years ago, but the U.S. population has added 100 million people since then. So if you look at the raw numbers there are millions more people reading than 20 years ago–people who need books to read. *Goes back to writing.*

      • There is nothing to prove that the new people read. TV and computers have replaced reading.

        • If the percentages aren’t decreasing quickly enough to account for the additional population, that means that enough members of the original population are taking up reading to account for the new members of the population. I don’t think that is a likely scenario.
          Even if it is, I’m not sure your pessimism is warranted because you could conclude that over time non-readers tend to convert to readers in significant numbers.

        • And reading blogs or stories online isn’t reading? That’s news to me.

          • I agree with you, if one isn’t restrictive in one’s definition of “real” reading, I think people do a lot more of it than they did in the past.

    • “Decline in readership”

      People are reading more than they ever have before. “Book purchasers” and “book readers” might be down (maybe, I’m not so sure), but readership in general is up. Articles, Twitter, Wattpad, fanfiction, Facebook posts… all of this is reading.

      • I read fewer bought books now than at any time in the last 3 decades.

        Why? There’s so much to read for free online.

        Humans have only so much time in the day for reading (if they enjoy it) and if they read a lot of free content online and that is taking up the “reading time,” then content that is paid for will get less time and that could mean fewer books read. I know that I don’t buy classics anymore. They’re all available for free. Why should I pay 10 bucks to a publisher for Jane Eyre or Middlemarch or Dracula or etc if those are public domain. I leapt with joy when I realized years and years ago that oodles of books I’d previously have had to trek to the library to obtain or pay Penguin to read were out there, a free banquet.

        So, yeah. I read fewer “real books I had to pay for” cuz I read blogs, articles, and free books online.

        Reading is different today. And will continue to change. And I imagine more and more readers will take advantage of the free or dollar reads and save money. That’s not great for writers, necessarily, but it’s great for readers.

    • Never warmed up to something that needs constant recharging.

      I know. It’s just like that car I have. The thing can’t go more than 400 miles without going back to the gas station.

  2. Has there be a serious article that went something like
    “This is the greatest time ever for readers and writers. It’s a veritable buffet of books available for alll tastes, all interests, all ages, from mainstream to niche categories. We lamented the trend that people were reading less than ever but now all indicators show people are reading more than ever. What a terrific statement for our society.”

    • No. There is no victim.

      • Sure there is — traditional media controllers …

        TV, newspaper and radio used to be your view of the world, control those few things and you shaped the thought of millions. Oh, and a ‘few’ controlled what books were available for you to consider reading …

        Today some random blog can go viral and drown out anything else that might have happened that day.

        In our world of readers, the internet and Amazon have made it where every/any writer can be found/heard — how can trad-pubs compete with that?

        Trad-pubs are also saddened by their loss of the ‘top ten/best seller’ tags they liked to hang on things they thought would sell well as Amazon won’t mark it as a best seller unless it ‘is’ a best seller …
        Then there’s all those dang self-pub types that are cheating the trad-pubs out of money they should be making ‘nurturing’ each writer to making the trad-pubs the most money …

        Yes, there is indeed a victim, it’s those that used to be able to shape and/or control the ‘little man’, for now they voices can be overrun by those same little men and women that used to look to them for guidance and knowledge …

        For writers the old gatekeepers keep nothing but the memories of power now fled — long live the gatekeepers — the ones we use in our heads! 😉

        (why, yeah, me be nuts … 😛 )

        • The traditionals are indeed victims, and they endlessly whine about their plight and how sorry we will all be when they are gone. But we never see it in an upbeat article highlighting the net benefit to society.

          It’s always wrapped in a doom and gloom piece about the demise of literature and the loss to society when culture makers are just a memory. The curating and nurturing will cease, and the vibrant literary conversation of the last few hundred years will be silenced by the tsunami.

          Thank God for tidal waves.

          • And that’s whose message we see the most often, the ones that used to have power, whose word couldn’t be ignored, moaning that they aren’t losing any of their power to the new ways and new forces … even as everyone can see that they are.

            This will continue until they can’t hide behind their carefully cherry-picked reports, and there will be a very sudden implosion when the true numbers are realized. (considering who owns the big five, I see some used printing machines coming up for sale cheap! 😉 )


            There are three ways to get something done: (1) Do it yourself. (2) Hire someone to do it for you. (3) Forbid your kids to do it.

  3. I just looked and in the past 3 years I have purchased 3 paper books and over 250 e books. I looked at why I did go with the three paper books and it was because they were cheaper than the E version.

    A more interesting trend is that in the past before E reading I would re-read my library of paperbacks and Hardcovers. Some would get re-read almost yearly. Since E reading I have hardly touched a book in the archive. Around A dozen of those most favored treasures I have repurchased in E format to have easy instant access to them. The rest I will slowly be giving away or selling while there is still a market.

    I have four means of reading my E books. Two versions of E Ink kindle… Kindle on the PC for lunch breaks at the office and a Kindle Fire Tablet. My newer backlit kindle is my preferred reader for around the house while the older version is my version for carrying and reading while walking the dog. All versions sync up and I can read a work on any or all at any time. What a wonderful time to be alive.

    • It would be interesting also to know how many of the 250 ebooks you purchased even had ISBN numbers attached. I would imagine quite a big of your reading has been what the article author called “dark”.

  4. I was speaking to a lady at my local library the other day and she said that the library had over a million borrows of ebooks last year, and that it is only increasing.

    I prefer ebook to print generally, unless it is a reference book where I need to do a lot of flipping around.

  5. Stopped reading at, “I am a digital subscriber to the New York Times…” 🙂


  6. I prefer eBooks over print for most books, with one exception: comic books.

    Yes, that’s my sweet little secret. I collect comics.

    Now, digital comics are great for some early comics that will forever be wayyy out of my price range. I have recent comics on digital as well, just for reading purposes.

    But I have the print editions, too.

    There’s just something about turning the pages of a comic and reading the actual pages that just isn’t as satisfying when reading on a Kindle Fire or an iPad…

    • As long as I retain the capability to rip any DRM off of my ebooks and print out any pages I desire I’m ok with my science journals and texts being in ebook form. Fiction books though? It’s been years since I picked a paperback fiction book up with the intention of reading it. As far as I’m concerned mass market paperback glue bound books are the book equivalent of a lemon car.

    • I think of comic books as art books. I still buy art books in paper form as well. When you add in the whole collector value thing, I think comics will continue to be sold and hold value long after ebooks have mostly replaced genre fiction paperbacks.

    • Yeah, I agree. The problem with comic books on e-readers is that even with tapping on the panel to make it bigger the images are still to small. It can make actually reading the book very difficult because the text is even smaller.

      • I completely read my comics/manga on my laptop or desktop. I haven’t been to a comic book store in years. And it’s been over two years since I got a bound set of comics on Amazon. If I can’t read it on my iMac or laptop, then I probably don’t buy it.

        Art books I still buy hardcover, but think how less expensive they could be if the art could be beautifully digitized for a larger screen, like a high-definition television screen. Botticelli and Burne-Jones and Remedios Varo on a 50+ inch screen. I can live with that. And if they found a way to give “real museum color” values–since what’s in a book doesn’t necessarily match how it looks in situ in real life (as I’ve noticed comparing an art book repro and the real thing with my eyes).

  7. Bilderback, I would add large photo books to that list.

    I read a lot, according to the demands of my self-publishing job and what I have available. I just finished “Naked is the Best Disguise” (Sherlock commentary) in hardcover. I’m reading P.G. Wodehouse on my Kindle Touch, and have sample books from various TPV commenters. I read a Holmes YA book (“Snake Bite”) from the library. I bought books recently for my Victorian essays, such as “The Poisoner” (used HC) and “How to Be A Victorian” (new). My wife bought two books on Edo Japan, used from Abebooks.

    What bugs me about the article is the assumption that the common wisdom was that print would go away, which is silly. It wasn’t going to happen any more than radio or TV would go away.

  8. What I love about this article is the amount of time the author spends talking about our “shadow industry,” or “dark reading,” as he terms it. When was the last time anyone not involved in indie publishing acknowledged the Nielsen gap in public?

    • Yeah, confirmation bias is so funny. I saw

      By most media accounts, ebook adoption has plateaued at about a third of the overall book market, and this stall has lasted for over a year now.

      and my first thought was “Citation, please.” I’d like to see just one study whose sample and methodology aren’t flawed corroborate this. Also,

      a huge and growing percentage of ebooks are being sold by indie publishers or authors themselves rather than the bigs, and a third of them don’t even have ISBNs, the universal ID used to track most books.

      Good acknowledgement, but let’s be further honest; you can’t exactly call anything not used by 33% of a sample “universal.”

      • I didn’t get that vibe from this article. Instead, I get the sense that the author was addressing an audience that still looks to the traditional numbers as having some sort of accuracy, and is trying to explain to them in terms that they can appreciate why that is no longer the case.

  9. They also miss the ‘tons’ (if a word is worth 0.000001 grams) of free stories out on the internet. Yes, 99.9 of it should be put back in the bit buckets that spawned it — but there are diamonds in that rough …


    Nothing ever becomes real until it is experienced. – John Keats

  10. For me, the key quote is:

    “I’m a historian, not a futurist, but I suspect that we’re not going to have to wait anywhere near forty years for ebooks to become predominant, and that the “plateau” is in part a mirage.”

    “We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten. Don’t let yourself be lulled into inaction.”

    Bill Gates


    When new technologies emerge, people expect them to take over immediately and when it doesn’t happen they turn their backs and then are shocked when it slowly steamrolls everything in its path.

    pBooks were never going to go away overnight.
    There will still be new pbooks in 50 years.

    But what will be gone and *already* is gone for all but the biggest sellers is the profitability of the “pbook only” business model. More, the pBook-first model is on its last legs. For most tradpub titles, the pbook edition is at best a zero-cost promotional exercise in marketting (hence all the recent angst over discoverability and shrinking shelf space).

    The proof can be found in the BPHs financials, where net profits are significantly lower than their net ebook margins; pbooks supply profitless revenue to prop up their market presence but the profits come from the ebook and audio editions. And, given their need to keep their foreign overlords happy, they need to report incremental quarterly profit increases or the pink slips fly. That is putting the squeeze on print editions (hence the accelerating trend towards digital first and digital only) and at some point the pressure will focus on the returns system and on the batch-printed launch window model.

    As Mr Gates said, the biggest changes aren’t the ones that happen over 2,3, or even 5 years but the ones that happen over over a decade or three.

  11. I always struggle to explain how dumb I think this type of analysis is. Let me try out a new analogy.

    Do you prefer drinks in a can or a bottle?

    Do you buy more drinks in cans or bottles?

    Do you drink more drinks from can or bottles?

    Think hard about the assumptions you would make if you were asked only one of these questions. Would you expect that everyone would answer each question the same way?

    If you ask most people the first question, they will tend to think of their favorite drink (which is available in both) and answer based on that.

    If you ask people the second question, they will tend to answer based on their recent shopping experience.

    If you ask people the third question, they will think you are weird and wonder why you don’t consider pouring your drinks into a glass.

    On top of that, some people will assume “drinks” means alcoholic beverages. Almost everyone will consider the universe of “drinks” to include only those drinks that are commonly sold in cans and bottles. Very few people will consider milk as a drink in this regard, but it is (sometimes, other times it’s a cooking ingredient).

    And yet, we expect the answers to the same sort of questions about print and ebooks to tell us about the future of ebooks.

    • And of course it doesn’t count fountain drinks! (or drinks poured into a glass …) 😉

      No, they’re hoping we won’t realize how ‘fast’ ebooks and audio is passing by the old printed page …


      Satire is tragedy plus time. — Lenny Bruce

    • I’ll drink to that.

    • Ah, but the question matters to Alcoa because their business is the cans. And it matters to a lot of bottlers because they don’t care what’s in the can or the bottle, they just want people to spend money on what they supply.

      The BPHs have “grown accustomed” to the pbook ecosystem and lifestyle.
      And as their pundits and apologists regularly demonstrate, they don’t want to give up that lifestyle. Life was good as gatekeepers.

  12. I am a bit enamored with the idea I write in the “dark” zone. I’m like dark matter. Dark energy. Twisted forces align with my prose like solar prominences follow the lines of the magnetic sun.


    I’m mulling the possibilities of investing in a black floor-length cloak and a breath mask, and shooting blue energy beams from my hands.

  13. …a black floor-length cloak and a breath mask, and shooting blue energy beams from my hands.

    No downsides I can see…

  14. and a third of them don’t even have ISBNs, the universal ID used to track most books.
    “… that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

    ETA: I guess it does sound more authoritative than “a third of them don’t even have ISBNs, the once-universal ID that still tracks more than half of the books (we think).”

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