The e-book, Chapter Two: in which we remember that we prefer paper after all

Ian Scales
By Ian Scales

May 10, 2017

via Flickr © cloud2013 (CC BY 2.0)

via Flickr © cloud2013 (CC BY 2.0)

  • E-books and e-readers are suffering a slowdown
  • Paper books and periodicals are on a revival
  • What went wrong?

What looked like an unstoppable trend five years ago has just stalled. Sales of e-books and their companion e-readers, most  famously Amazon’s Kindle, have suddenly slowed, executed a three point turn and gone back the way they came. The numbers are almost shocking.

The UK Publishing Association says its stats show an e-book sales decline of 17 per cent in the UK in 2016, while sales of traditional books and periodicals actually grew by 7 per cent. The US market has followed a similar pattern.

It was all supposed to be so different eight or nine years ago when we at TelecomTV were reporting on the Kindle and the e-book phenomenon. So high was the interest after the launch of the Kindle in late 2007 (just after the iPhone turned up) that bold predictions were being made about potential monetization opportunities for mobile telcos who were quick to jump in and partner with Amazon on over the air (OTA) book sales.

But more than this, on paper (as it were) the concept appeared to be just right for the times. For the user, a Kindle stuffed full of ebooks meant you didn’t have to go to a bookshop and you didn’t have to lug the books around with you. Books were actively slaughtering the rainforest, of course, so you could feel smug about not encouraging that.

In summary, your electronic reader was arguably far more convenient than a bookcase; was easier to use; was stylish and modern (in a 2007 sort of way) and the books themselves promised to be less expensive (being merely electronic) and you could take thousands of them with you. It was pretty clear to many that the e-book was going to win out. Yes, the paper book would remain, but it would be a dwindling category.

And in fact the ebook did come a long way - it currently represents  about a quarter to a third of the total book market, at least before it turned its recent corner and started shrinking.

So the big question is:

Why? Of course there are all sorts of reasons being proffered for the reversal. Publishers are being blamed for making ebooks too expensive, while publishers say people are just sick of staring into electronic screens all day and want something ‘real’ in their lives.  

Then again, maybe it’s our fault. We just didn’t think it through before we rushed out and bought our Kindles.

After all, the early days of television sometimes saw the cameras trained on newspapers so we could all read the news at home. That didn’t last long, but it shows a natural tendency to use new technology to do the old thing better, rather than let it drive a ‘new’ thing.

It might be that the ‘new thing’, in this case, was really the World Wide Web itself. Today the Web drives textual information to us, but not as books - rather, as tweets, electronic articles on Facebook, emails, special interest Web sites and so on. And it drives it to our computer screens and, importantly, to our smartphones.

Meanwhile, we’ve discovered that books (the paper ones) represent much more than information capsules. They have texture, smell, weight and individual memory wrapped up in them. And besides, if you are ever going to be interviewed at home on camera you need to position yourself in front of your well-stocked bookcase. A Kindle or two on a coffee table just won’t cut it.

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