Digital readers were supposed to kill print books. What happened?
The e-book is the revolution that never came. About five to seven years ago there was a legitimate fear that the printed book was on the cusp of being made obsolete – a huge concern for those in the book trade. With the potential to fit War and Peace in your pocket it seemed like only a matter of time before the conventional book was reduced to nothing more than a few kilobytes of data.
And yet the latest book sales figures and market research seem to indicate the opposite. According to Booknet, a non-profit organization that serves the Canadian book industry, e-books accounted for 16.9% of total book sales in 2016, a decline from 19% in 2015. Paperbacks, meanwhile, made up 54.2% of purchases while hardcovers accounted for 23.9%. Furthermore, according to the Pew Research Center, 65% of Americans reported reading a printed book in 2016, compared to only 28% who read an e-book.
So how did the e-book become an option rather than a market disruptor? Two of the biggest reasons are price and experience. As The Guardian notes, average e-book prices rose 7% to £4.15 in 2016, while hard copies increased 3% to £7.42. The same trend can be seen in North America. As the price gap narrows, it significantly dampens the allure of the e-book. Then there is the cost of the device. Whereas a printed book is the complete product, an e-book requires an e-reader. Even a no-frills Kindle costs $80.
The e-reader market itself is one experiencing obsolescence. A 2016 Nielsen survey reported that mobile phones and tablets overtook e-readers as book lovers favoured multifunctional devices over dedicated e-reader brands. That is supported by the sales of e-readers that declined by more than 40% between 2011 and 2016, according to Euromonitor International.
The sensory experience can’t be replaced
Books are a sensory adventure. They can be held, smelled, observed, and heard. A 2013 survey by Voxburner found that 62% of 16- to 24-year-olds preferred print books to e-books. The most popular reason given: “I like to hold the product.” There are some genres that are simply better in analog. Nielsen found that only 4% of children’s fiction was digital. Imagine an adult colouring book or children’s literature on an iPad? It’s just not the same. The additional competition of audio books and the digital detox trend may also be impacting e-book sales as consumers’ habits change.
However, e-books’ original benefit, the inexpensive dissemination of information globally, is still very real. The proliferation of mobile devices has allowed even the poorest communities to access information. Furthermore, independently self-publishing an e-book is significantly easier as there are more non-conventional avenues available to authors compared to the rigorous process of print publishing. For example, libraries have self-published e-book depositories, Amazon offers self-publishing, and there are numerous e-book resellers.
The benefit for our industry is that e-books can provide an untapped revenue stream. Software programs, such as InDesign and Quark, now have the ability to save ePub files, the standard file format for e-books. If one is already designing the printed book, providing an accompanying ePub would only serve to add value for the customer, e-books are another product for a printer to sell to their clients; one that, incidentally, is fairly easy to produce.
Nevertheless, there are considerations to keep in mind. First, is that some dedicated e-readers, such as the Amazon Kindle, have a specific file format; however, the free software KindleGen can do the conversion. Second, ePubs come in two formats: fixed layout or reflowable. A reflowable ePub is dynamic. This file can adapt to various mobile screen sizes as the lines of text reflow seamlessly. A fixed layout ePub echoes the original layout and is ideal for image heavy publications where the relationship between photos and text needs to be preserved. Finally, some adjustments to the file may be needed. Quark requires the document be created as an ePub layout or the document will need be reflowed as an ePub, while InDesign can export directly from the original file. There are numerous online tutorials which address additional concerns for ePub file construction but many of these changes are easy to apply as most steps would already have been done during the design phase.
There is a love for print. Print books are surviving – even thriving – in the e-reader age. And many printers already have the tools, opportunity, and know-how needed to offer this product to paying customers. Both digital and physical books can share the bookshelf, printers just have to make sure they can produce both.