As many of us head off to Malice Domestic, where the traditional printed book is the focus, news from the publishing industry is grimmer than ever. In the first quarter of this year, while e-book sales jumped by 169.4%, sales of print books in all categories fell a total of 25%.
According to the American Association of Publishers, e-books and trade paperbacks were tied in the early part of the year as the leaders in all book sales.
Nielsen BookScan, which covers approximately 75% of retail book sales, reported that in the first quarter mass market paperback sales dropped by 26.6%. (The AAP statistics show an even steeper fall of 36%.) Hardcover fell 7.2%, and trade paperback dropped 6.4%.
Adult fiction lost the most ground among the various categories, falling 18.3%. (By contrast, adult fiction is the strongest segment among e-books, accounting for 61% of sales.) Juvenile nonfiction fell 11.7% and juvenile fiction dropped 8.1%. Only adult nonfiction, with a 1.1% drop, avoided a precipitous fall in print sales.
The soaring sales of e-books takes some of the sting out of the decline in print sales, but the sad truth is that books in all forms are losing their attraction as a source of entertainment and information. Vast numbers of people simply do not read books. Ever. In any format. However, the average Facebook member spends more than seven hours on the site every month. The average American watches more than 84 hours of television each month. Video games also claim a huge share of our attention span, and a single video game will sell more units in a month than all the top 20 New York Times bestselling books combined.
In a recent issue of Publishers Weekly, independent publisher Rudy Shur of Square One Publishers noted that our concern over the rise of e-books and the decline of print books is misplaced. The real competition isn’t between different forms of books but between books and other forms of entertainment. Putting a book on the Kindle won’t suddenly turn non-readers into readers.
All the evidence is that reading as a pastime began to fall out of favor when computers and then the internet became ubiquitous. That decline continues. But as fewer and fewer people bother to read books, those of us with an emotional, intellectual, or financial investment in all forms of publishing spend our energy arguing about whether e-books are good or bad. We should be talking about how to turn more people on to reading. We should be trying to figure out what it takes to lure kids away from video games. We should be trying to reawaken the love of reading in people who may have given it up because they were too busy raising kids and working. We should be persuading parents that reading to and with their kids is good for all of them. While we’re at it, we should support our local libraries in any way we can.
E-books, print books – what good will any of them be when no one is left to read them?