Yesterday’s snowy, miserably cold weather here in New Jersey did have a bright side. In my “snow day” mode, a leftover from childhood that I can’t seem (and don’t want) to shed, I allowed myself to read to my heart’s content, spurning the opportunity to get caught up on household chores. It was a day off, after all.
A rare combination of events, the delivery of my “early in the week” copy of The New York Times Book Review early in the week (instead of early in the next week, thank you USPS) and my having time to read it, allowed me to use the “Bookends” column for January 5 as an inspiration today’s blog. The question of the week is “How do e-books change the reading experience?”
Creating a favorable reading experience is the goal of all of us who contribute to this blog, from writer through editor, agent, publisher, publicist, librarian and bookseller. We each do our jobs to please readers, to make them want to read more. The physical embodiment of the end product is part of the experience, and format preferences vary as widely as tastes in subject matter. Although the numbers for 2013 are not yet complete, it appears that electronic books have settled into a significant market share, but have not put an end to the paper book as doomsayers (or false prophets such as Jeff Bezos) anticipated a few years ago.
Headlines spotlight the slowing growth in sales of e-books as if this trend were a surprise and some sort of boon to traditional booksellers. As with any new technology, the initial burst of interest in the latest device has passed, and those who don’t read much anyway are not reading much on their electronic devices. Those who do read a lot and do most of their reading electronically can still consume only a finite number of books in a year; the spectacular growth has to slow at some point. My own reading habits, the data from scientific surveys, and purely anecdotal reports from customers, tell me that each reader is settling into his or her own mix of paper and electronic reading.
An aside – I found it appalling at first when I read that 68% of e-books purchased are not read. Then I thought about the multiple piles of “to-be-read” tomes in my own house, and decided that this number doesn’t add much to the comparison of the two methods of reading. Readers are ever optimistic that they will find the time to get through the backlog, no matter what the chosen device.
Surveys are showing that more and more readers are using tablet devices rather than dedicated e-readers. My own experience backs this up. I started with my Sony e-reader, and loved it for travel, or large volumes that I didn’t want to physically handle, despite my love for the feel and smell of real paper. It also came in handy for older books that even I, as a bookseller, could not get easily, although they were still in print. (Noting, of course, that these were scanned versions of the print, and often laden with errors.) Then came the iPad. Why carry two devices?
In “A Mixed Blessing in Slowing E-book Sales” (Publishers Weekly, November 15 2013), Jim Milliot points to research showing that those who read on tablet devices buy fewer titles and spend less time reading on those devices than those who use dedicated e-readers. What is missing from his analysis is the “why.” Answering that question is the purview of those of us who deal in words, both in reading and -conversation, rather than numbers. Both Mohsin Hamid and Anna Holmes make the same point in different ways in their New York Times “Bookends” essays; most readers agree. The tablet allows for too many distractions. Instead of lifting one’s eyes from the page momentarily to ponder the writer’s meaning or artful use of words, I will take that moment of respite to check my e-mail, the weather, or Facebook. The disruptive thoughts one puts aside while reading a paper book with no other handy means of communication can be acted on immediately: Google the unfamiliar term, send a message about that meeting next week, add an item to the to-do list. It is extremely hard to get “lost” in a book when it is surrounded by distractions and the ability to follow up on them. The experience of being in another place and time is gone.
This experience of being “lost in a book” applies, for the most part, to fiction readers. Thus, more readers of nonfiction use tablets; their preferred reading experience is enhanced by the ability to search, to research more detail on a topic, to compare other viewpoints. Being emotionally and mentally consumed by someone else’s story is not the objective. It is no surprise that e-books have eaten most substantially into mass market paperback sales, or that the corresponding digital volumes are sold primarily for dedicated e-reading devices. The readers who devour popular fiction as their preferred means of entertainment do not want the distraction of the tablet, but a reading experience similar to a paper book. What appeals is the ability to obtain books at a lower price, and never to run out. When one reads a book a day, as many do, even $7.99 adds up to over $50 a week. If the backlog has been exhausted, the next book is only a download away. Never again the disaster of finishing a book while waiting at the doctor’s office, and having forgotten to bring another. For the most voracious readers, the new technology wins; even if they still like paper, it costs more and takes up space. I used to have several customers who came in weekly to stock up on used paperback popular novels; they were commuters who used the bus or train time to read “lighter” fare. Now, they load their e-readers; the price is close to the used book, and there is little bulk to carry.
What about the fiction reader who uses the tablet for multiple purposes, both professional and personal, but wants the uninterrupted joy of immersion in a good novel? It seems for that reader that the paper book is the preferred format. Talking to my son during his Christmas holiday (two weeks!) at home confirmed what I have picked up from listening to readers in my shop. He, like so many young professionals doesn’t often have much time for pleasure reading. He uses his iPad for magazines and news. When, three days after Christmas, he had finished my carefully selected gifts (Philip Kerr, Jussi Adler-Olsen, James R. Benn, Stuart MacBride) and asked if he could get more from my shop, I was, of course, quite willing to supply him with all the books he wanted. I was pleased with his comments that he wished I could always select his books, because he doesn’t seem to do well on his own. I suggested that he shop at independent bookstores where he can get real help, rather than at chains and other outlets, but even in London, we are hard to find. I mentioned his ever-present iPad as an easy way to continue the series I had started him on and find others; I was told that he hates to read novels on the iPad. The reason is the easy distraction, combined with too much staring at a screen for other reasons. His friends feel the same way. The book experience is special, and when there is time for it, it must be complete.
For booksellers, this stabilizing of the e-book market is not a windfall, but an opportunity to assess inventory and business practices to accommodate the “new normal.” The market seems to be settling at 1/3 e-book and 2/3 print. Focusing on what books are included in that 2/3 is the traditional bookseller’s task. The real threat is not from alternative formats, but from “show-rooming” and the pricing policies of certain on-line retailers. Last week I had to violate my own principles and buy books I desperately needed in a short time from said predatory-pricers; the fact that I paid a great deal less (even including sales tax) than I would have had my own suppliers been able to provide the books did little to ease the pain. More interesting, the same book was listed the next day on the same site at more than double the price; hard to believe my 9 copies affected the giant’s numbers, but I suppose for that day it was a 900% jump in sales and merited some price-gouging. And it’s all numbers to them, a commodity. The independent seller has to focus on service, on knowledgeable book recommendations, on stocking the literature that readers prefer to read on paper. We have to change with the times. One of my plans for the new year is to start selling e-books.