eBooks Might Not be the Death of Print After All

In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal titled “Don’t Burn Your Books—Print Is Here to Stay“, Nicholas Carr discusses how the apparent decline in eReader and eBook sales seems to signify that physical books aren’t in their last gasp after all. While I do agree with the general premise of his article, i.e. that physical books won’t disappear from the face of the planet any time soon, I have to wonder what is causing the downward trends the industry is experiencing.

For example, I can tell you that I haven’t bought a new eReader because my 3rd generation Kindle still works just fine (despite the fact that the case seems to be swelling at the bottom). I was momentarily tempted by the new Kindle Paperwhite when it first came out, but they’re still fairly pricey and the plain fact is that my current Kindle doesn’t need to be replaced. Also, I’m not really sold on buttonless touchscreen readers. I like being able to hold my Kindle one-handed and turn pages without needing to move my hand.

I have to wonder how often Kindle owners feel the need to upgrade to the newest model as soon as it comes out. eReaders don’t seem like the sort of technology that would inspire upgrade fever. The hard drive on a Kindle is nearly impossible to fill up (unless you load it with audiobooks and music) and the main thing it needs to do is display text, which doesn’t require too many bells and whistles. If you really want to play games or use apps on a handhold device, you’re probably in the market for a tablet instead of an eReader.

It also make sense that the biggest customers for book purchases are book lovers who either 1) insist on sticking with physical books out of familiarity and comfort or 2) buy books in every medium (like me). That’s why I am particularly intrigued by Carr’s suggestion that ebooks “may turn out to be just another format—an even lighter-weight, more disposable paperback”. This definitely jives with my current buying habits.

When it comes to new books, I almost always buy digitally, but for most big new releases I buy audiobooks from Audible because I am far more likely to read a book quickly if I listen to the audio version. I do still buy a decent number of Kindle books, but usually only when they’re on sale. I’m a sucker for $1.99 price tags, so if I catch wind of a sale on a book I’m interested in, I’ll buy it despite the fact that I might not read it for years. As for physical books, I’m pretty much addicted to used book stores, so I walk out with books basically every time I walk into a Half Price Books. Additionally, there are still some books that can only be bought in print, such as the unabridged version of Jorge Luis Borges’ Collected Fictions.

Kindle Additionally, it makes sense that there are some books that are well-suited to buying on a Kindle. The recent upsurge of self-published books has created a glut of digital-only content, and although I am still wary of self-published books in general, I think they will continue to thrive on ebook stores. I’m also likely to buy lightweight fare like urban fantasy novels on a Kindle because they’re normally priced to match mass-market paperbacks.

Ultimately I think it’s likely that eReaders will live side-by-side with physical books for the foreseeable future. It’s possible that physical books will eventually become more of a specialty product for connoisseurs like vinyl records, but I think that’s a long way down the road from now. I don’t think print publishing has anything to worry about until we reach the point when grocery stores start stocking cheap, nearly-disposable eReaders instead of printed copies of the newest sensation like Fifty Shades of Gray.

My Kindle (Almost) One Year Later

When the Kindle 3 came out last August, I decided to take the leap into the digital future and pick one up. I’d recently moved across town to another new apartment, and after moving several dozen extremely heavy boxes of books, it occurred to me that it might be worth my time to stop owning so damn many shelves full of books. It also helped that the Kindle 3’s price point and features hit a particularly attractive sweet spot.

Now, I knew going in that the Kindle would probably never fully replace my desire for physical books. I can’t resist a used book store, especially when they have a sale, and I’m never far from a library here in Austin. However, after almost a year of living with the Kindle, I’m surprised at how few ebooks I finished on the device. Off the top of my head, I’d say I finished no more than a dozen digital books, whereas I read several dozen physical books.

The most likely explanation? I have a huge backlog of  unread physical books in my personal collection, more than 300(!) at last count. I’ve also always had at least one library book checked out at all times. I think there’s just something about actually seeing books sitting on a physical shelf that still has power over me. It’s much easier to forget I even own the books in my Kindle collection. They don’t loom on my bedroom bookshelves, demanding to be read. I can’t quite decide if that’s a good or bad thing.

I was also disappointed to discover that Kindle book gifting isn’t quite ready for prime time. When I filled my Christmas wishlist with Kindle books last year, my parents were hesitant to purchase them. They were told that delivery would be instant and I’d get an email, ruining any possibility of a Christmas surprise. When my birthday rolled around I only listed physical books to keep things simple, which just seems like an oxymoron. You’d assume that digital gifting would be the simpler option, but the technology hasn’t quite caught up with common sense yet.

However, the Kindle store isn’t the only viable digital option out there. I actually ended up listening to a lot of audiobooks this year. I’ve been an occasional audiobook listener over the years, but the combination of my iPhone and the extremely well-made Audible app turned me into a dedicated listener. I ended up spending way too much money on a lot of audiobooks this year. It turns out that audiobooks really help me focus at work when I’m doing data entry, so I pulled up the Audible app whenever I needed to buckle down and be productive.

On the whole, I’m glad I bought the Kindle. It’s definitely not my primary source of reading material yet, but I like having the option available if I want to read an ebook. I’ve started buying all of the big new release books as ebooks, which is especially nice for thousand-page epics, but it’ll take years (maybe decades) before I run out of books to read from my existing collection. I think my transition to a full-time digital reader is going to be a gradual thing, happening over the next 5-10 years, rather than something that happens over night.