Wednesday, April 27, 2011

E-books are not the problem

Sandra Parshall

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?

23 comments:

Warren Bull said...

Excellent post. I wish I had an answer. Can I put in a plug for independent bookstores? Anything you can order online can be ordered through the people who help us keep on writing.

Sandra Parshall said...

You can always plug independent bookstores here, Warren. I hope everybody who attends Malice Domestic this weekend will buy something from the booksellers in the book room.

Sandra Parshall said...

Question for all of you: When you're on public transit, or waiting in a doctor's office, etc., do you see many people reading?

Vicki Lane said...

Good and timely words, Sandy. I'm a lover and supporter of libraries and indie bookstores as well as a paperback writer and I'm beginning to feel a bit like a dinosaur, watching that meteorite approaching...

Barbara said...

I was just traveling and noticed on the plane that just about everyone who wasn't sleeping was reading something. From my vantage point I could see one Kindle and a lot of books and magazines, but printed books were number one - after sleeping!

New book sales may be down, but library circulations are higher than ever per capita and used book sales and swaps are lively. As for evidence, it doesn't all point away from reading. Much of what we do on computers involves reading (and writing); more people are involved in writing than ever in history, and more people enjoy reading books than is generally believed. See Catherine Sheldrick Ross's book Reading Matters which is chock full of evidence that reading is not dead.

This may not be a great time to make a living as a writer (has it ever been?) or as a publisher, partly because far more is being published than ever in history, but it's a great time to be a reader, and people are reading. Even young people.

Sheila Connolly said...

This is such a transitional time, and the publishing markets are in flux. Maybe there is a "classist" element too--those who read are those who have both the time and the disposable income to do it, which doesn't describe a lot of people these days. Will the phenomenal surge of ereaders and ebooks make a difference? The jury's still out.

I can remember when there were those who thought that watching television would rot our developing minds, as well as take time away from reading. I managed to both watch and read, while obtaining a Ph.D., holding down jobs, and raising a family. It's hard to stop true readers--there just aren't enough of us, and it's getting harder and harder to recruit new ones.

Beth Anderson said...

My daughter tells me her commuter train is always full of people reading from e-readers, which, now that I have one, I'm finding to be extremely versatile. I love it.

However, I think we have two other major problems here that need to be addressed. 1. The economy, which is definitely keeping people from buying as many books, and 2, the fact that too many short-sighted politicians are cutting back so drastically on education.

Vast amounts of money that should be spent educating our children AND adults are going for such idiotic, politically-inspired costs that I don't even want to start listing them. We all know what they are.

Fix the economy so that so many of us can relax enough to buy books, and we will buy books.

Fix the education budget so more of our children and adults will learn not only to read, but also comprehend what they're reading.

Reading will never die, IMHO. I'm not too sure of our political system which continues to allow so many of our children to go virtually uneducated when the ability to read and comprehend is one of our nation's most pressing problems today.

Sandra Parshall said...

Here's an interesting study of reading habits in Shanghai, conducted for the Shanghai Commission of Economics and Information.

http://china.globaltimes.cn/society/2011-04/648171.html

34% of those surveyed said they read fewer than 5 books a year. The number of frequent readers (5 to 30 books a year)dropped. Similar results have been reported in Beijing. In Guangzhou, however, people still read a lot.

E. B. Davis said...

I tried really hard to instill a love of reading in my kids. It didn't work. My daughter spends too much time on facebook and watching TV and movies. My son is into music (so am I but not at the expense of reading).

I wish reading didn't remind kids of school work. Perhaps if video games, TV and movies were required in school...fat chance!

Liz Lipperman said...

Great post, Sandra. A little scary...but good.

I was on a Caribbean cruise a few weeks ago, and I noticed how many readers were soaking up the sun with their favorite past time. I would say 85% of the readers had paperbacks, 5% hard covers and only about 10% held Kindles or some other e-readers.

I'm guessing the increase there was because of the lack of other forms of high-tech entertainment available.

Somehow, we have to make it so reading is again the relaxing reward we give ourselves at the end of a hard day's work. Sorry, I have no good solutions short of pulling the plugs on TVs and computers, which we both know isn't going to happen.

Wait. I do have one great solution --everyone needs to take more vacations!!

Kathleen Delaney said...

So right on. I don't know the answer, either. Even when you read to childen, TV, video games and Nintendo steal them away. And their parents. Curling up with a good book seems to be yesterday's pastime. Supporting our local libraries, and our local indies are about all we can do, and I agree that we should do it whole heartedly.

Sandra Parshall said...

Liz -- LOL! Most of us would go along with your more-vacations strategy to get people reading. For many, reading has become a luxury, something they indulge in when they have a big block of free time. Book addicts will continue to read all the time, everywhere, but for a lot of people reading is something they can easily shove into the background and turn to only occasionally.

Julie Godfrey Miller said...

Thanks for the great post. I can't even imagine one day without reading a book. (I'm even getting used to reading some e-books.) What wonderful worlds people are missing if they get all their "stories" from TV or movies. The pictures we create in our heads are soooooo much better than anything on the screen.

Linda Leszczuk said...

I read to and provided books for my kids when they were young and I'm doing the same for my grandkids. Both my kids still enjoy reading but have trouble finding the time to do it. The grandkids enjoy reading but they're also too busy and more inclined to grab a video game or watch TV in their limited free time. Somewhere along the way we've lost the concept of spending an afternoon curled up with a good book. We're all just too darn busy.

Linda O. Johnston said...

Scary, Sandy, but I'm afraid you're right. We need to find more ways to encourage people to read.

Bernadine Fagan said...

Good article, Sandy.
I hardly ever see anyone reading in doctors' offices, unless paging through a magazine counts.

Morgan Mandel said...

I believe the new e-readers, such as Kindles, Nooks, etc., actually are encouraging more people to read. I don't see reading going out of style anytime soon.

Morgan Mandel
http://acmeauthorslink.blogspot.com

Lynn said...

I recently went to a librarians' conference about eBooks and libraries. One speaker, Eli Neiburger, said that our population is literate -- they are more literate today than ever before; however, they just don't read long form fiction. So we need to go back to the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle thing and publish our long form fiction in newspapers (or blogs) and get people to read a snip-it every day.

carl brookins said...

Yes, we do need to encourage and support reading development, but I'm not ready to throw in the towel. Not so long ago I was in a library to do an event. Fifteen youngsters not interested in our event were seated at the computer terminals. What were they doing? I looked. My goodness, they were reading screens filled with.....
words, sentences, paragraphs. Days later, in another library in another town, nine teenagers were concentrating on the computer screens in front of them. Again I looked and was shocked to discover they were all reading words.
Words on a page, words on a screen, reading is endemic and isn't going away any time soon.

Sandra Parshall said...

Everybody who uses a computer is reading words, but are they reading BOOKS? Are they interested in fiction at all? To survive in the modern world, you have to be able to read, but that doesn't always mean reading books.

Sandra Parshall said...

I think fiction serves a great purpose in the world. It takes us to different places, inside the heads of different people, makes us see society in new ways -- and it exercises our imaginations in a way that no TV program or movie ever can. Reading fiction is a participatory activity, not simply sitting back passively while entertainment is delivered. You have to use your mind to read a novel. Fewer people seem to want to do that these days.

Mizmak said...

Re: reading on the bus commute - this does concern me, because I've been commuting for 20 years to a university, and nearly all my fellow passengers are either staff or students there. I used to see lots of these folks reading books or journals or newspapers. Over the past few years, I've noted a definite decline in books and newspapers (still see a few journals) and a big increase in handheld electronic devices. Only a few seem to be ebook readers; the bulk are phones or ipads etc., and when I sneak peaks at them, they are checking email and playing video games.

The younger the commuter, the more likely they are to be texting or playing games. I'm one of the very few people left who is holding an actual book on the bus.

-Alexandra MacKenzie

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