Hear that? That’s the sound of Johannes Gutenberg rolling in his grave. Amazon, the very company that has done the most to disrupt the industry surrounding the printing press, has opened a physical bookstore.
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The all-too-familiar tale of digital disruption that we’ve seen play out in television (Netflix), transportation (Uber/Ola Cabs), accommodation (Airbnb) and music (iTunes, Spotify) hasn’t quite applied to the printed word. This isn’t to suggest, however, that Amazon is throwing in the towel and plans to open any more bookstores, or even pursue it as a serious strategy; only that the march of technological progress hasn’t followed its usual course.
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Bookstores were disintermediated in two separate stages. The first stage was the rise of ‘e-commerce websites’ (a term that seems more antiquated every day), where customers could order physical books online and have them delivered straight to their homes. Two of the most prominent groups of book buyers – gift givers and readers who wanted the hottest young adult fiction title on the date of release – shifted over quickly. The rest followed, attracted by cheaper prices.
The next stage happened when Amazon co-founder Jeff Bezos stepped up on stage in 2007 to introduce the Kindle, a device that he assured people would “project an aura of bookishness” and would be less of “whizzy gizmo than an austere vessel of culture”.
E-book sales soared from 2008 to 2010 – one estimate puts it at as high as 1,260 percent – and many players within publishing industry started fearing for their lives. Questioning its own existence, American bookstore chain Barnes & Noble decided to play at dice and come out with its own e-reader, the Nook, in 2009.
Much of the anxiety and worry surrounding the industry reached its peak when bookstore chain Borders, a rival to Barnes & Noble, declared bankruptcy in 2011; though by that time Borders was more of a merchandising store and had unwisely invested millions into music and physical CDs in the years preceding the launch of iTunes.
In 2011, it appeared as if the digital transformation of the printed book (in developed Western markets at least) was well on its way to completion. Amazon announced that in the first half of 2011, sale of Kindle e-books had, for the first time, overtaken printed book sales in the U.S.
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The number of e-books sold in the US grew only by 43% in 2011 – which was no doubt great growth, but also a slight step-down from the triple digit growth of the previous three years. In the years after 2011, discounting a slight uptick in 2013, the growth of sales of e-books in most Western markets have remained in the low two-digits.
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To be fair, many of these estimates and figures are put out by the larger, more traditional publishers, and fail to take into account the boom in independent digital publishing (the space movie The Martian, which was released recently, was based on a book that was published through Kindle’s Direct Publishing initiative) that is being supported by Amazon.
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What’s holding back a complete digital transformation, a transformation of the likes that we saw in the digital music market, even in India? Here are a few possibilities:
1) Price: This has perhaps been the most significant, and ultimately boring, factor. A number of analysts and publications are quick to point out that e-books aren’t a whole lot cheaper than their print counterparts. Even in India, for example, on Flipkart’s e-books section, the digital copy of Fifty Shades Darker is priced at Rs. 254: its physical counterpart is available for Rs.250. Customers who initially take the plunge in buying an e-reader may do so with the expectation of buying e-books for cheap and are usually left disappointed.
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On similar lines, perhaps we are starting to see that e-books are suitable for certain reading situations—for instance when travelling or when on an airplane. The advantages of e-books become less important, and in certain cases detrimental, when you look at other reading during other situations, such as curling up in bed on a cold, rainy night.
These reasons are the most interesting, simply because they indicate something inherent in the human condition and the way we interact with literature. It is for this reason that e-books may not wholly triumph; rather than being seen as a substitute for printed books, the way digital music replaced vinyl records, they may come to be seen as a complimentary reading option.