Saturday, 14 May 2016

A dispatch from Seething Wells

Well, from New York, actually, but I am seething. I have just read an item in The Guardian of May 13 2016 by Simon Jenkins headed: “Books are back. Only the technodazzled thought they would go away.”

In it, Jenkins argues that sales of e-books are in decline and that sales of e-readers are in freefall. “Shrewd observers,” he says, “noted the early signs. Kindle sales initially outstripped hardbacks but have slid fast since 2011. Sony killed off its e-readers. Waterstones last year stopped selling Kindles and e-books outside the UK, switched shelf space to books and saw a 5% rise in sales. ...Amazon has opened its first bookshop.” As for the books themselves, he goes on, “Now the official Publishers’ Association confirms the trend. Last year digital content sales fell last year from £563m to £554m. After years on a plateau, physical book sales turned up, from £2.74bn to £2.76bn.”

The physical book: Not dead yet
Jenkins is a distinguished journalist of many years’ standing and a prolific author, and I have no quarrel with him. (In fact, I rather like the fact that he calls himself Simon Jenkins instead of Sir Simon, which he has been for some years.) But this article shows a lack of critical thinking, induced perhaps by membership of the great and the good.

There are two fundamental misunderstandings behind this article. First, sales of Kindles may have fallen, but that is because fewer people now read e-books on a dedicated e-reader; they read them on devices they have for multiple purposes, such as tablets and phones. In fact it's amazing how many people I see on the New York subway reading on a phone from which they are also streaming music and reading emails. I do have an e-reader, but when it gives out, I shan't replace it; I shall use my tablet, or buy a cellphone with a bigger screen. I already use my tablet instead of my Kindle when reading at home, as I can stream music to my stereo from it, use social media and see messages as well as reading. So the fact that e-reader sales are declining is meaningless. Had Jenkins wanted to know what was really going on, he would have asked how many e-reader apps were being downloaded to mobile devices.

Second, the Publishers' Association release should be taken with a large pinch of salt. In fact, an entire salt mine.

I assume they're referring to e-books sold by their members, which are likely a small minority of those sold, because mainstream publishers' e-books are so stupidly overpriced. If a publisher has the nerve to charge $11-$15 for an e-book that I can buy in paperback for $18, or secondhand off Amazon for $1.25 plus $3.99 postage, why on earth would I bother with the e-book? I buy more e-books than physical books, but none of them are from members of the Publishers' Association. They're from independent authors and small presses, who typically charge $0.99-$3.99. And younger readers are often using platforms like Wattpad, or consuming flash fiction off the internet. So the figures Simon Jenkins quotes are, again, meaningless.

I actually do not want physical books to go away; I buy them often (though mainly secondhand) and so far have made all my own books available as paperbacks. I also love the way physical books can be passed from one reader to another. I am delighted by the informal book exchanges that are appearing. I loved one I saw in Flatbush last year; basically, a glass case on a pole sticking above someone’s garden wall, with a note saying “Leave One, Take One.” You can’t do that with eBooks, unless you have the MOBI or EPUB file (although you can then; perhaps that is the future). Neither does an eBook provide decoration for your living room, or delight you with the elegance of its fonts or design.

But the coming of the e-book has made far more available at a far lower price, and opened up the book market to a dazzling array of original work that would hitherto never have seen the light of day. I am not referring to 50 Shades of Gray (though I must say, I don’t begrudge E.L. James her success). I am thinking of subversive, unexpected works that no conventional publisher would ever have touched – many of which I’ve reviewed in these blog pages over the last three years.

The eBook has disrupted an entire industry, but that industry is digging its head in the sand and pretending it is a passing phenomenon. What the Publishers' Association (est. 1896) is afraid of is a changing landscape in which they are losing control of the market. Hence these rather desperate efforts to pretend that all is well and we'll soon be back in the 1970s, with publishing controlled by genteel Oxbridge graduates who push out boring novels about adultery in good taste amongst tweedy people like themselves. If they want to stay in business they should think about publishing a much larger number of electronic titles at much lower prices, and using print-on-demand for physical books so they don't run the risk of unsold lith runs. And they should stop wasting our time, and theirs, trying to persuade us that nothing has changed.

You can read Simon Jenkins’s article here
 Mike Robbins's novella Dog! is available as an ebook for just 99c (US) or 99p (UK), or as a paperback, from  Amazon (US, UK, and all other country sites), Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Indigo, iTunes and more. Find all his books on Amazon here.

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  1. I will borrow Simon's book out of the library.

  2. Ha! And if you read it on a Kindle he'd be getting a royalty, though hardly a king's ransom, one suspects.

    He could have been a little more skeptical about these figures and what they actually meant. But my beef isn't with him; it's with the old-established publishing industry, which refuses to admit that the world has changed and that they now have to. The worst are the academic publishers, but general publishing also needs to think how it is going to adapt and survive - I think it can actually, but not by sticking its head in the sand and pretending that e-books and independent publishing do not exist.

  3. And here, by contrast, is Jenkins saying something sensible and saying it very well.