booksAre e-books “winning,” or are print books? The reality is more complicated, Davey Alba writes on Wired. Alba looks at the different articles proclaiming e-book sales are slipping and print books are resurging, and even Amazon is poking its nose into physical bookstores now, and says, “Not so fast.”

As Mike Shatzkin previously noted, a large part (indeed, possibly all) of that resurgence in print sales is due to the current fad for adult coloring books. Meanwhile, different genres do better in different media. E-books see the best performance from popular fiction, romance, and young adult bestsellers, while children’s books and nonfiction do better in print. That can make it hard to prognosticate clearly.

Meanwhile, Amazon continues to adjust its own strategies to account for a changing marketplace—focusing more heavily on self-publishing and its own publishing imprints, and promoting the Kindle Unlimited subscription program. And its venture into bookstores could let it leverage the vast stores of information it’s collected in its online business to sell more books face-to-face.

The headline of the article proclaims that “It’s not books vs. Amazon. You can have both!” That much is certainly true. And as I noted the other day, while e-books are definitely important to Amazon, they’re not going to make or break the company by their success or failure.

But the book and e-book market continues to feel its way onward, changing and developing as it goes. It still remains to be seen how Amazon’s recent introduction of the Kindle Oasis will further change that market. Have we reached the point where a designer e-reader can be successful? If so, what will that mean for consumers’ reading habits?

In any event, it seems clear that books and e-books—and bookstores and Amazon—will continue to coexist for the time being, regardless of anything Amazon, the bookstores, or the publishers try to do to change it.


  1. Debating digital versus print is as pointless as debating whether subcompact cars will replace large pickup trucks. Each has their place with readers and depends heavily on what use a book is put.

    In general, digital is best for flash-in-the-pan, read-once-and-forget books. Print is wasted on them, as a UK bookstore pointed out when it created a wall of Fifty Shades of Stupid books that it’d be given and couldn’t sell. No lovely tree should die to create such drivel.

    Contrast that to copies of The Lord of the Rings, which rarely end up in used book stores and disappear quickly when they arrive. Fifty Shades of Stupid was barely worth a first pass for those who did read it. The Lord of the Rings is worth reading again and again.


    Perhaps a more interest competition is that between either reading format, print or digital, and audiobooks. Reading is the same experience, whether you read on a Kindle or on paper. Listening to an audiobook is a different experience. You can listen in contexts where you can’t read.

    About ten years ago I was living near Seattle’s popular Green Lake. An abundance of pretty girls and relaxing scenery made it a great place for a walk. To make double use of my time, I first went low-tech and decided to read as I walked. The path around the lake crossed no streets, so doing that was safe and I cared not what others thought. I was saving time and that’s what mattered.

    But I soon realized that walking and reading meant really slow reading. I had to continually look up to see where I was going, lest I bump into one of those pretty girls jogging, and find my place when I looked down.

    So I got a Sony Walkman and began to listen to books on tape from my local library. That worked well enough as long as I carried enough tapes to last through my walk, but the fragility of tapes mean that Seattle’s public library was buying more books on CDs than tape. My selection was limited.

    So I got a CD player, but soon discovered that didn’t work well. CDs were designed for music. When I ran into a friend at the lake and stopped to talk, my place on that CD was lost. A pain.

    So I got a iPod mini and the software to move what was on a stack of CDs into a single audiobook file on that iPod. Finally, a solution that was simple and practical. The only hassle was feeding a dozen or so CDs into my Mac to create that file.

    So, eventually I migrated to an iPhone, discovering both podcasts and free classic audiobooks from sources such as Librivox. The podcasts download automatically to my podcast player, Overcast. Getting free audiobooks with apps from Librivox or Loyal Books is also easy. If I had more money and an interest in keeping up reading fashion, I could do the same with the Audible app.


    About all that’s left to try would be some combination of listening and reading. Listening lets me make double use of my time when on-the-go. When I moved 2900 miles cross-country in 2012, I listened to about a half-dozen audiobooks to ease the boredom. Trying to drive and read like I once read and walked would have been a disaster. Pulling a heavy trailer behind a compact car, I had to drive carefully. Listening to those audiobooks kept me alert but not distracted.

    It’s true that I could merge both reading and listening with an app that handled both. When I can read, I read faster than I can listen. But that mixing of medias hardly seems worth the trouble. I simply listen to one book and read another. I do seem to have reached a sort of stasis that could last for years.


    In short, I don’t think the digital v. print competition matters that much, particularly for authors like me. We can set print and ebook prices such that we earn about the same from each sale.

    What matters is probably what audiobooks will do to the sales of fiction. Authors who create text-only books—something easily done today—may find themselves losing out to authors who can also create an audiobook edition. Would-be readers never become their readers because those readers find themselves listening to or reading books by authors who have audiobook editions. That’s where a changing market is going to most impact authors and the smaller publishers.

    I certainly would not want to subject the public to my reading aloud. Were I a fiction author, I’d look into making a deal with a talented book reader. I’d supply the text, he’d created the audio, and we’d split the resulting income 50/50. The talented host of the Classic Tales podcast is offering to do reading for hire. I suspect other book readers are doing the same.

    And yes, creating both print and digital versions is already a hassle. Adding audio will only add to that. The new technologies impact on independent authors aren’t all good. Too many choices can be almost as bad as none.


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