Armageddon for the printed word never materialized, it passed us by. Well at least that’s what we expected when eBooks arrived on the scene. Five years ago, we (authors) feared the printed word was on the way out and that to see our work in print would be the exception rather than the rule. Between 2008 and 2010, readers flocked to e-readers, e.g., Kindle, Nook, etc., and print sales began to dwindle. We watched as bookstores fought to keep their collective heads above water, fearing that once loyal customers were abandoning them for cheaper e-versions of their favorite authors’ works.
In 2011 a literary earthquake struck the reading public when Borders declared bankruptcy. We shook our heads and chalked it up to technology making our lives better. It was thought that digital books would overtake print this year, 2015. We watched a similar transition occur in the music world.
Then, something strange happened. Suddenly, the trend slowed. People began to eschew the digital word for the old, reliable, comfortable print book. In the first five months of 2015, e-book sales fell 10 percent. Sales of Kindles and e-readers fell off even more, dropping from nearly 20 million devices sold in 2011, to about 12 million last year. A Nielsen survey early this year found a 50 percent drop in the number of folks using e-readers.
E-books’ declining popularity may signal that publishing, while not immune to technological upheaval, will weather the tidal wave of digital technology better than other forms of media, like music and television. As a result, publishing houses are ramping up their print infrastructures and distribution centers. Hatchette and Simon & Schuster are expanding their storage and distribution capabilities. Penguin Random House, which has nearly 250 imprints around the world, reported that print books account for more than 70 percent of their sales in the U.S. In addition, HarperCollins said faster deliveries due to expanded infrastructure means bookstores can place smaller initial orders and restock as needed. This strategy reduced returns of unsold books by about 10 percent.
There is no denying that reading a book on an electronic device is handy and convenient. The time spent at the doctor’s office waiting to be seen, or taking the train to and from work, are times when reading from your smart phone makes sense. However, my thought is that the reading public wants a tangible connection with the story and its author. Having a print book in hand, and the ease of being able to skip back to a chapter or page, makes for a comfortable fit.
Maybe it’s too soon to tell. Maybe it’s simply a pause, as Carolyn Reidy, president and CEO of Simon & Schuster says. But I think we’ve seen a balance struck. Both e-readers and the printed word will share the stage together in the coming years. More importantly, the death of the printed book was just a result of fearful publishers crying wolf. Now, let’s start stocking those shelves.