Surprise revival in UK printed book sales, with ebooks dipping

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I’d like to say it’s partly due to a pushback against the arseholery associated with ebook DRM, but knowing consumers that seems very unlikely.


I suspect this is the usual dodgy statistic showing declining ebook sales, by only looking at ebooks from traditional publishers. Traditional publishers are losing out to self-publishers in the ebook world, largely because of their pricing policies, and figures for ebook sales from self-publishers are hard to come by.


Funny. I just finally got an ebook reader and the experience of reading on it is so far superior to printed books that I basically never want to have to haul a printed book around again. I can adjust the font size to suit my declining eyes (and fatigue level), I can adjust the backlighting to low light so I don’t have to read at night bathed in light, which keeps me awake. I don’t have to hold it open at a particular page, I can easily toggle between multiple books without having to physically mark the page I’m at…the benefits just go on and on.

Amusingly, the last book I bought and read is Kevin Kelly’s “The Inevitable,” which I got at one of his Bay Area readings. Halfway through, I got a cheap used iPad and immediately finished Kelly’s book in digital format and have never looked back. I’ve actually begun reading books again!

I wonder if those statistics are taking into account all the folks accessing their literature via the dark web? Amazon’s not the only place to find ebooks, you know. Just sayin’.


I wonder if there’s some effect here from competition between ereaders and tablets? If you already have a tablet, perhaps it seems frivolous to purchase an ereader as well, despite the reading experience often being better on an ereader.

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Speaking only for people I know personally, that’s not the case.
Every “serious” reader I know has an ereader (and almost all kindles) as well as a tablet. I’ve read on my phone for years (since the ol’ mobipocket on my first blackberry, which was bought out by amazon and I believe formed the basis of the ios Amazon app, then Stanza, also bought by Amazon and shut down because it showed up their own app as woefully underdeveloped) but what I mostly read these days is comics, and book readers couldn’t hold a flame to a tablet for that. But I have no source beyond the readers I know, so perhaps I just know ereader happy folk.


Not surprising it because it true that traditional publishers are losing out for their high pricing policy.

People forget that the US had these tiny chain bookstores everywhere even as late as the 1990s. It used to be every mall had at least one Waldenbooks or B. Dalton. The thing was, tiny bookstores had the massive drawback of not having much interesting beyond bestsellers and if your tastes were a bit obscure, you were out of luck. Borders and Barnes & Noble had a much better chance of actually having a book you wanted.


Not to mention phones… Just looked at Moon+ Reader on Play - 10M downloads.


Oh, considering the space they had, I thought Waldenbooks and B. Dalton had reasonably good selections. I definitely felt they had more knowledgeable staff than the big warehouse stores.

I’m just reminded, back in the nineties, I happened to shop at a Little Professor bookstore (I think that was the chain) on the last day before they went out of business. Despite their eminent demise, the owner carried on with their weekly program of reading stories to local children. Except this week’s story was about the big, mean, giant chain store and how it was destroying all of the little, innocent, defenseless smaller stores. It was pretty special.


And the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan movie “You’ve Got Mail!”. That’s going to be hard to explain to younger people – Amazon doesn’t play a role at all in the book business even though people were gushing over how cool the Internet (or at least AOL’s sanitized portal to it) was.


Yep. And much of the so called decline is due to the big publishers having gotten Amazon to relent on letting them set the pricing. The big publisher’s ebooks have shot up in price, making it kind of inevitable that their ebooks sales would lessen. No surprise there–it was their intention to boost up their physical book sales, after all, by making ebook prices more comparable. Plus some (likely) faddish things, like “adult” coloring books have helped. But Indy and self-published books are still going gangbusters from all accounts.

Of course, the citation-free Sky News article Rob linked to, with its “kids today love something physical” blather isn’t really big into nuance.


This sounds true too, I mean consumers may be dumb as oxen but they get angry like said animals too.

Besides this, perhaps it has something to do with quality? The big “self publishing” companies, like amazon, have been engaging in all sorts of schemes and shenanigans to try and squeeze the authors’ cut down, and this certainly drops the quality of the work.
Writers need to get paid, after all.

I doubt that it’s a pushback against DRM in some sort of principled, Stallman-approved, kind of way; but it very well might be in a purely practical sense.

Public perception of technology seems to be (mostly for good reason) that it’s glitchier and less reliable than one would like; and since DRM systems are designed to prevent you from doing certain things, and to resist tampering, they tend to increase the number of mysterious failures and 'sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that" moments.

It probably doesn’t help that, at least for titles from major publishers with both ebook and print editions, there seems to be considerable reluctance to let prices diverge too much between paper and electronic copies; and the costs(assuming adequate quantity) of putting together a decent printed book aren’t all that high thanks to the maturity of that technology.

DRM is a much easier sell when it is either the only game in town(eg. DVDs, and even here one can see some people specifically sticking with DVDs rather than buying blu-ray because DVD playback is much closer to universal, and ripping is illicit-but-trivial, while blu-ray support is more expensive and the DRM less reliably broken); or where the DRMed option offers some sort of compensating advantage(like the crazy-cheap back catalog games you can routinely score on Steam).

Plus, DRM cuts directly against some of what would otherwise be advantages of ebooks: the geeks say “You can’t grep paper!”; but if your ebook requires the Adobe Digital Editions™® to read; guess what you also can’t grep?




Waterstone’s was reporting growth back in February

It was attributed to good curation, well trained staff and new cafes inside the store. I like the ability to pass a book onto someone else once I’ve read it.

Waldenbooks/B. Dalton were just the mall-names for the big box stores, where they focused on airplane books with some token genre paperbacks in the back of the store. Waldenbooks was Kmart since the 80s and then Borders until they imploded. B.Dalton was B&N. Of course, they started off as small stores, hence the names.

Around me, Barnes & Noble are the place to go to buy new books or to buy book-like objects, but they’re also diversifying. The really big one nearby has a large used book section that’s actually good. Also, B&N is going to start serving alcohol in a bid to make themselves more attractive to adults later in the evening. Not sure how this will affect the look & feel of the stores, though

That said, I don’t go to B&N to buy books – I go to The Strand here in NY or a local bookshop, and only if I’m browsing for used versions of books I want to read. And then I compare them to Kindle because reading on a device is much, much easier.

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I think it is partly a limitation of the technology of tablets and ereading devices. Compare, for instance, the Amazon bestseller lists for paper and Kindle ebooks–they’re very different. The Kindle list is much more heavily weighted toward genre fiction, and very little nonfiction, and certainly almost no ‘serious’ nonfiction. (For example, when Piketty’s massive work of economic theory was #1 in paper, it was #120 on the Kindle). And the difference is mainly this: the reading experience for plain text on a tablet is okay, and being able to adjust type size and so on is a nice thing for many readers. But for more complex works, with charts and graphs and math and so on–things rapidly go downhill. So the market for ebooks has captured much of the low-hanging fruit, as it were, but probably won’t grow a lot beyond that until the technology improves, and I can tell you this is a low priority for the Apple and Amazon and the rest of them.


The book market is sort of like the booze market – ten percent of the customers buy ninety percent of the product. Our household is very firmly in that ten percent, buying something like 50 books a year and wishing we had money in the budget for four times as many. Due to my spouse’s disabilities, which make it impossible for her to read paper books anymore, we buy everything in ebook format these days unless the book is for me alone. With that as background, I have some observations.

That is all true, but paper books also have advantages. I never screw up the UI on a paper book and lose my place due to accidental taps, or accidentally highlight something when I meant to turn the page. I can painlessly flip back and forth in a paper book to check something in the back matter or refresh my memory of something said earlier. As for pretty illustrated books - absolutely the only way to go is paper, especially if you’re talking the craptastic e-ink screens on dedicated ereaders. The software(and hardware) for ebooks might develop over time to overcome these handicaps, but right now, paper books still have their unique advantages.

On the other hand, book publishers still cannot get their most basic act together. I have lost track of the number of ebooks I have purchased (not talking about fan-scanned, decades-OOP books you can find on torrent sites, where the metadata is almost guaranteed to be wrong somehow) that had incorrect metadata. Publishers that would never dream of issuing a book with the author’s name wrong on the spine, issue ebooks with the author’s name wrong in the metadata. Vonda N. McIntyre is an author. McIntyre, Vonda N is how you sort the name, not how you spell it. Collect books from two or three different publishers by the same author, and like as not you’ll see two or three different versions of the name in an app’s list of authors, with only one of them being right.

That’s assuming you are allowed to see a list of authors at all. I can think of exactly three ebook reader apps that can present the library of loaded books organized into folders by author, rather than as an endless flat list of books: stanza (killed by Amazon, no longer works on modern OS versions), Shubook (innocent of such nuances as epub’s “sort by” metadata field, or of such HTML formatting as blockquotes), and (only sort of) Marvin. Neither of the storefront apps I’ve tried (Ibooks, Kobo) support providing a list of authors whose books are loaded in the app. None of the ereader apps that I’ve checked out (and I’ve paid for almost a dozen and downloaded more free ones than that) allow you to create separate shelves so as to, say, divide the fiction from the nonfiction. It’s as if the programmers who write the apps only own a couple dozen books themselves and cannot comprehend that someone might want to store a thousand or so books in the app and still be able to find things. (Yes, some of the apps have tags. Invariably too much of a PITA to deal with, especially since publisher supplied tags are useless for sorting my library my way).

So, quite apart from the whole DRM thing, there are lots of little frustrations that keep me from falling wholeheartedly in love with ebooks. When I am shopping only for myself, I invariably prefer bulky paper books with their non-zoomable text. The software remains simply too primitive and annoying. And for gift giving, paper books are absolutely the only choice – handing someone a wrapped memory stick for their birthday simply doesn’t have the same emotional resonance.

So I am not surprised that paper books are holding their own and refusing to go away and die quietly like 8 track tapes or floppy drives.

Another thing – When ebooks started being a thing, something wonderful happened – dozens of books on our want list that had been out of print and essentially unavailable for decades suddenly became available again as the authors began to reissue their backlist as ebooks. We acquired a lot of ebooks very quickly as we filled holes in our libary, and then our purchases declined back to normal. Maybe the ebook market was artificially inflated for a while as all the bookworms suddenly became able to get books they had had on their wish lists forever, and now it is declining back to its natural level as we heavy readers go back to only getting new books as they come out, in whatever format is most suited to our wants and needs.


I wonder if this has something to do with how well-run major UK bookstore chains are (small stores in high-traffic areas) compared to American ones (strip-mall big boxes, full of trashy ancillary merch and empty of foot traffic.) The literary retail culture there makes people want to drop in and fuss around with books, while the one here just means no-one is ever in a bookstore in the first place, so they just order stuff on Kindle.

Makes sense to me. I rarely go to the local strip-mall B & N, and not just because it’s a soul-less corporate entity. The place feels cavernous, and yeah, weirdly empty of people. The staff seem almost desperately friendly too, especially while pushing the rewards card.

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