So writes Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, in a recent WSJ piece. Carr writes:
Half a decade into the e-book revolution, though, the prognosis for traditional books is suddenly looking brighter. Hardcover books are displaying surprising resiliency. The growth in e-book sales is slowing markedly. And purchases of e-readers are actually shrinking, as consumers opt instead for multipurpose tablets. It may be that e-books, rather than replacing printed books, will ultimately serve a role more like that of audio books—a complement to traditional reading, not a substitute.
How attached are Americans to old-fashioned books? Just look at the results of a Pew Research Center survey released last month. The report showed that the percentage of adults who have read an e-book rose modestly over the past year, from 16% to 23%. But it also revealed that fully 89% of regular book readers said that they had read at least one printed book during the preceding 12 months. Only 30% reported reading even a single e-book in the past year.
What’s more, the Association of American Publishers reported that the annual growth rate for e-book sales fell abruptly during 2012, to about 34%. That’s still a healthy clip, but it is a sharp decline from the triple-digit growth rates of the preceding four years.
However, the Pew Research Center survey (from Dec. 27, 2012) that Carr cites is titled, “E-book Reading Jumps; Print Book Reading Declines”, which begs the question: is this a glass half full/half empty conversation? Lee Rainie and Maeve Duggan, the authors of the survey, state:
The population of e-book readers is growing. In the past year, the number of those who read e-books increased from 16% of all Americans ages 16 and older to 23%. At the same time, the number of those who read printed books in the previous 12 months fell from 72% of the population ages 16 and older to 67%. …
The move toward e-book reading coincides with an increase in ownership of electronic book reading devices. In all, the number of owners of either a tablet computer or e-book reading device such as a Kindle or Nook grew from 18% in late 2011 to 33% in late 2012. As of November 2012, some 25% of Americans ages 16 and older own tablet computers such as iPads or Kindle Fires, up from 10% who owned tablets in late 2011. And in late 2012 19% of Americans ages 16 and older own e-book reading devices such as Kindles and Nooks, compared with 10% who owned such devices at the same time last year.
The survey also notes, “In the book-reading population, those most likely to read e-books include those with college or graduate degrees, those who live in households earning more than $75,000, and those whose ages fall between 30 and 49.” Carr, however, makes the strong claim that the “initial e-book explosion is starting to look like an aberration.” And:
The technology’s early adopters, a small but enthusiastic bunch, made the move to e-books quickly and in a concentrated period. Further converts will be harder to come by. A 2012 survey by Bowker Market Research revealed that just 16% of Americans have actually purchased an e-book and that a whopping 59% say they have “no interest” in buying one.
Meanwhile, the shift from e-readers to tablets may also be dampening e-book purchases. Sales of e-readers plunged 36% in 2012, according to estimates from IHS iSuppli, while tablet sales exploded. When forced to compete with the easy pleasures of games, videos and Facebook on devices like the iPad and the Kindle Fire, e-books lose a lot of their allure. The fact that an e-book can’t be sold or given away after it’s read also reduces the perceived value of the product.
That sounds about right to me. Since being given a Kindle two years ago for Christmas, my use of it has waned quite a bit in the past year. There are a number of reasons. For one, quite a few of the books I’ve read are not available in e-book format. Or, if they are, they are books that I prefer to read in a printed book. Also, I’ve found that reference works, commentaries, and similar works are not very easy or enjoyable to use in e-book format. In addition, I buy a lot of used books, many of which are out of print; needless to say, most of those are not available in e-book format, certainly not for $2 or $3 each, which is what I often pay for used books in the thrift stores I often haunt visit. In light of all that, I find this part of Carr’s analysis to be on very sound ground:
Screen reading seems particularly well-suited to the kind of light entertainments that have traditionally been sold in supermarkets and airports as mass-market paperbacks.
These are, by design, the most disposable of books. We read them quickly and have no desire to hang onto them after we’ve turned the last page. We may even be a little embarrassed to be seen reading them, which makes anonymous digital versions all the more appealing. The “Fifty Shades of Grey” phenomenon probably wouldn’t have happened if e-books didn’t exist.
Readers of weightier fare, including literary fiction and narrative nonfiction, have been less inclined to go digital. They seem to prefer the heft and durability, the tactile pleasures, of what we still call “real books”—the kind you can set on a shelf.
Yes, indeed. What do you think?