Is There a Point to E-Books?

16 years ago, on March 14 at exactly 12.01am, publishing house Simon & Schuster released the very first e-book. The experimental release was a 67-page novella, Riding the Bullet by Stephen King. Within 24 hours of the release, half a million people had downloaded the e-book, heralding the experiment a success, as reported by Striphas in The Late Age of Print.

Since their initial triumph, have fiction e-books, if at all, found a place in the modern market and are they are as groundbreaking as publishers originally thought? This article aim to discuss if e-books are worth the bother and how well they have fared in 2016.

The Reality of E-book Sales

Subsequently, 16 years on, the e-book represents only a 24% share of the market, whereas the fact is print still dominates the remainder. Last year, print saw an increase of 0.4% to 2.76bn. This increase of sales is attributed to the phase of adult colouring books. Books such as Lost Ocean and The Secret Garden by illustrator Johanna Basford sold an estimated 12 million copies in 2015.

Print sales in 2016 are predicted to rise again, with the release of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in August. The play, written by Jack Thorne based on an original story by JK Rowling, sold 680,000 copies in the UK in the first 3 days of sale.

This boost in sales for print after years of faltering is the morale boost for those who momentarily saw a future without print in it. Amazon has opened its first bookshop. Sony has stopped producing e-readers. Waterstones have reduced their partnership with Amazon and the Kindle. The adult colouring book craze of 2015 is the perfect example of why people return to print, as Publishers’ Association states:

‘Readers take pleasure in a physical book that does not translate well on to digital.’

Despite these facts and figures, the leading market isn’t necessarily a good indication of who is reading what. E-books are underrepresented in sales figures, as a large percentage sold don’t have an ISBN number: in 2015, 37% of all e-books sold on Amazon were without ISBN numbers. Market statistics from Nielson ignore this form of digital publishing in their Year End Review, but websites such as AuthorEarnings.com report true e-book sales, including self-published titles.

Author Earnings uses a computer program called ‘Spider’ to track the unreported sales of e-books on Amazon. This may suggest that, although statistics from 2015 show the sales of e-books fell by 1.6% to £555m, it might not be the case that sales are declining. It may be that sales are becoming less visible as self-published fiction titles are gaining a larger share of the market.

E-book: Is Their Time and Use Limited?

The best-selling fiction genres of the e-book format are romance and fantasy. For some print readers, and Striphas in his book The Late Age of Print,these statistics would fulfill every stereotype of the typical e-book reader: disregarding quality content and only buying ‘crude copies of vaunted originals.’ As an example, 3 of the 5 top-selling Kindle books of all time are from EL James’ controversial erotic romance ‘novel’ Fifty Shades of Grey series.

The very term ‘e-book’ suggests that the digital presence of publishing is reliant on and a subordinate of the print book.

Critics, such as Guthrie in his book Publishing: Principles and Practice, would argue that technologies such as the telephone and the car were invented to replace what had existed beforehand; these technologies found ‘clear identities’ for themselves. (Guthrie, 2011) The e-book’s potential is therefore limited as it ceases to exist without the print book, in which it was invented to theoretically replace.

Similarly, the e-book has been limited in terms of innovation in the last 5 years. As Amazon are producing the leading e-reader, the Kindle; of which there have been 14 generations in 9 years, (Kindle, Kindle 2, Kindle DX, Kindle DX Graphite, Kindle Keyboard, Kindle 4, Kindle Touch, Kindle 5, Kindle Paperwhite, Kindle Paperwhite 2, Kindle 7, Kindle Voyage, Kindle Paperwhite 3, Kindle Fire) there is a lack of competition and incentive to inspire innovations. Throughout the 14 generations of the Kindle there has been little change to the reading experience, apart from the introduction of new fonts, new keyboards, a new touch screen and a more rounded tablet experience.

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An example of Amazon’s newest Kindle – The Kindle Fire. © Intel Free Press, Flickr, 2011.

With such redundant changes being made to the e-book experience, it could be argued that they are an embodiment of consumer capitalism. Amazon are producing more e-readers with limited uses, hence they are manipulating consumer demand through the large-scale mass marketing of products that people simply do not have a need for.

Furthermore, it could be argued that e-readers and e-books are an easy way for distributors such as Amazon to control consumption through, as Pold and Andersen state in their essay, ‘programming that closely monitors consumer behavior and the effects of marketing through tracking and surveillance.’ This is clear through the DRM (Digital Rights Management) of all e-readers. DRM is an in-built software to police the copyright of all e-books and e-reader formats. DRM is also a way for the manufacturer of the e-reader to track any purchases made on it and make connections with the user. It maintains this link allowing for direct, personal marketing to the user.

Underdog: The Emergence of The Independent

However, with that said, it could all be a very cynical and possibly damaging view of e-books. For self-published authors, e-books are a cheaper and more efficient way to gain access to the market, eliminating the outsourcing costs of editing, design, printing and distribution.

As Figure 1 below demonstrates, in May 2016, self-published titles dominated around 45% of the entire e-book market, whereas Amazon only retained a 10% share. This implies that, despite the aggressive marketing and cut-pricing that Amazon ensures, e-book readers are ultimately more supportive of the typical ‘underdog’, encouraging a more creative process.

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Figure 1. Market Share of E-books by Publisher Type: Feb 2014-Oct 2016. © Author Earnings, 2016

Compare this data to that found in a report by Author Earnings, outlining that ‘most if not all of print’s reported 2015 “resurgence” took the form of…sales…at Amazon.com.’

So, although print readers could claim to still be reading on the original format, dedicated to keeping print alive, they are buying through an online conglomerate that doesn’t support indie print titles, whilst also showing a lack of support to independent bookshops and retailers. This demonstrates that print readers are more interested in a stable brand.

This ethic is something highlighted by the net book agreement. Put into place in 1899, it allowed publishers to set the retail price of books. In 1995 it was declared no longer in the public interest to have publishers subside ‘works of importance – or potentially important authors’ and was therefore swiftly made illegal. After the collapse of the net book agreement, chain bookshops dominated the market and independent bookshops collapsed.

The number of independent bookshops left on the British high-streets is less than 1,000.  This number is set to fall further unless print readers tear themselves away from the enticing low prices of Amazon to support the traditional book buying experience.

To Be or Not To Be

There is no escape to the never-ending debate that is print books versus e-books. Whatever personal preferences there are to each format of reading; from price, convenience, loyalty or even smell, the important fact is that people are still reading and will continue to do so. There will always be a market for fiction, no matter what format it presents itself in.

The one argument that does stand out, however, is how deeply ingrained print is into Western culture and how important it has been to the development of this culture. It therefore becomes harder to think of alternatives for it. As Professor Kathleen Fitzpatrick states in her book Planned Obsolescence: ‘simply translating texts from paper to screen misses the point.’

Nevertheless, e-books account for nearly half of the UK’s fiction sales. This suggests that although, on paper (or screen) e-books are an underwhelming alternative to print, people are consuming them in high quantities.

Even so, until e-books find a place within the consumer market that enables them to have an identity of their own, free from the technological and innovative restraints they are currently placed under, their value will continue to be scrutinized.