Never Judge a Penguin by it’s Cover?

Book covers have been almost as important as what’s inside them for as long as they have existed.

A cover encompasses so much more than a shell to protect the pages inside; they hold all of the information which anyone would need to know about the book at a glance. Beyond this didactic role the jacket or cover of a book fulfils an abstract, yet important need. It is through book covers that publishing businesses build a recognisable brand. It’s about perception; the way in which a reader makes subconscious connections to the world of the book, and so they reflect upon the author as well. In this piece I will be examining the role of cover design in the success of publishing giant Penguin.

Penguin as Innovator

In many ways no other publisher has been so vital within the book industry as Penguin has. Their book covers have had a leading role shaping the brand, and have ensured Penguin’s heritage of good design.

Penguin was formed by Sir Allen Lane and his brothers in July 1935, although the family had already been experienced in running a publishing business. Penguin’s direct ancestor was a firm called The Bodley Head, run by Allen’s uncle John Lane. In its time The Bodley Head was at the forefront of design, employing renowned illustrator Aubrey Beardsley as their art editor.

What set Penguin apart was their vision for inexpensive, mass market publishing. It was necessary that the books should look good; “I have never been able to understand why cheap books should not also be well designed, for good design is no more expensive than bad” said Sir Lane.


The original Penguin book covers featured the most pared back, simple designs imaginable. With a horizontal grid partitioning sections of text; the masthead, the book title and author, printed in the Eric Gill sans serif font and featuring the Penguin icon. They made use of colour coding, for instance using dark blue to denote biographies and orange for fiction.This classic design language would set out the blueprint of the company’s future self.

In the beginning, the roles of production manager and designer were both performed by Edward Young, who hand sketched all of the cover concepts himself along with the original Penguin, Puffin and Pelican logos. The renowned typographer Jan Tschichold took over as designer and gradually refined and built upon Young’s ideas. Tschichold’s main contribution was the so called Penguin Composition Rules, which were “a standardised practice for creating the covers for all of the books produced” distributed as a flyer. This brought an end to the inconsistencies which had occurred in the covers Young had published. Under Tschichold’s design “the standard format was and still is 180 x 111 mm, a golden rectangle” which allowed for greater clarity in dealing with printers.

Originally sold for sixpence each, the books were so affordable that for the first time almost anyone had access to them, a revolutionary idea at the time. A famous dilemma, as referenced in George Orwell’s book title Books v. Cigarettes, was between purchasing a Penguin, or a pack of 10 cigarettes for the same price.

Using Images and Paintings from the Wider World

Penguin grew to a point where it had market dominance, however the brand was not without competition. “Publishers such as Pan and Corgi had a more targeted readership and quite different approaches to marketing their titles” says designer Phil Baines. Therefore Baines argues “Penguin began to realise that the vertical grid, with its.. often old fashioned illustrations, was perhaps too reticent in the face of a competition using full-colour imagery and dynamic lettering” and needed to change something.     

It was under the art direction of Germano Facetti that Penguin developed a strong, modern visual brand. During the 1960’s Facetti updated the graphic themes of each of the Penguin, Puffin and Pelican series. When he brought his visual ideas to the renowned Penguin Classics series, “his crime, in [E.V] Rieu’s eyes, was to replace the spartan jackets with a reproduction of a painting, chosen to reflect the theme of each book”, which caused some internal disagreement. Facetti said that, “in designing for the Classics, it was assumed that the majority of the great works of literature have inspired works of art” and argued, “the provision of a visual frame of reference to the work of literature can be considered an additional service to the reader who is without immediate access to art galleries or museums”, an idea which remains relevant to this day.

This burgeoning connection to the arts was not without precedent. In 1944 the Penguin Modern Painters series was created by Sir Kenneth Clark to give “the wide public outside the art galleries” access to modern art. Penguin’s attempts to bring artistic works to a mass audience with their dedicated artist series and the use of images on their book covers, parallels their founding philosophy of inexpensive books that most people could afford to buy.

The mechanism by which they were able to do all of this, was mastering the craft of creating compelling book series.

“Series design provides a unique opportunity to utilise cumulative effect. For example, key content can be removed from one cover since it can be found on others in the series, which then promotes inquiry from book-to-book” – former Penguin designer Dave Pearson.

Facetti’s action to go pictorial on covers, although controversial at the time, was in keeping with the Penguin brand. It showed that Penguin understood their cultural context and were making efforts to claim a greater stake in it.

In House Design

From the early, production minded minimalists like Edward Young and Jan Tschichold, to the men trained in the visual languages of the modern age, like Phil Baines and Dave Pearson, cover design at Penguin has almost always remained in house.

One rare instance which contradicts this is the Designer Classics books, which marked the 60th anniversary of Penguin. Famous designers from the wider world were invited to create interpretations of classic Penguin titles.

“One might say that this was an attempt to engage with the complex fragmentation of modern visual culture, in which art and design intermix” – author on typography Robin Kinross.

Spanish shoe designer Manola Blahnik styled a cover for Madame Bovary, in a less than understated fashion. Sam Taylor-Johnson posed an image of a male model on the cover of F.Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is The Night. Costing £100 per book, and only being produced in limited edition, it seemed that this was a very odd way to celebrate the founding philosophy of Penguin Classics.

Yet, it seems stranger still that “in reality, knowledge of, and pride in the company’s design heritage was not widespread; at least not in-house” according to Dave Pearson, designer of Penguin’s popular Great Ideas series. Perhaps this is because ever since Jan Tschichold created the Penguin Composition Rules, the designers at Penguin have lived in the background.


Penguin has had a number of imprints which operate to differentiate its publication series’. Two of the earliest and most influential of these were Puffin and Pelican.

Puffin was established as a picturebook brand, aimed solely at a young reader. Announced at the outbreak of the second world war, “The worst has happened… but evacuated children are going to need books more than ever… Let us get half a dozen out as soon as we can” said Sir Lane. This illustrates Lanes determination to publish, even if it meant trying new things. A plate based printing process called autolithography played an indispensable role in creating the Puffin series. “If the number of colours was carefully considered, autolithography offered reduced costs and more faithful rendition of an artist’s intent” said printer Geoffrey Smith. The use of these images and the Puffin logo created a distinctive brand, nonetheless recognisable as a Penguin subsidiary. Having cover images also set the Puffin range apart from all other Penguin books, which at the time had horizontal tripartite covers.   

© Purple Camel/Flickr, 2012

Pelican was another brand in the Penguin family, although “from the start there was no rigorous dividing line between Pelican and Penguin subject areas” says Baines. The Pelicans tended to veer towards more serious subject matter in terms of content, and featured a cover design similar to the standard Penguins, except that they made use of a light blue colour for some of the ruled sections, and the Pelican logo. In spite of the seemingly meaningless separation from the rest of Penguin, the brand was very popular; “Who would have imagined… there was a thirsty public anxious to buy thousands of copies of books on science, sociology, economics, archaeology, astrology and other equally serious subjects” said Sir Allen Lane.

In addition to Pelican and Puffin, Penguin tried to establish an academic imprint which they called Peregrine. This was later to become Penguin Education, headed up by Charles Clarke, with Derek Birdsall as consultant art director. The academic series used minimal design, but “the titles were the thing, I decided to exploit the varying widths of the spines typographically” says Birdsall.

Penguin revolutionised the publishing world by implementing its philosophy of book culture, even when to do so meant breaking with tradition. Robin Kinross talks of the way “In the great years of Penguin… the firm had become a British institution that one could seriously compare to the BBC” and it would seem self evident that the design language which they developed on their book covers is central in the company’s success.

By Jonathon Stephenson: Linkedin


A User’s View of Scholarly Publishing: Are Words for Web?

Books or Computers

In a society where using technology is as natural as smiling and where the world can be explored from a screen, many industries have had to rapidly adapt or risk becoming obsolete.

What do we expect when reading for academic purposes as a result of our phone-in-hand culture? Industry experts have said, “Digital technology has become inevitable in societies that are increasingly based on knowledge.” So, why is the library still so print-heavy?

Books or Digital?

While perhaps there is sentimentality or an ideal reading experience taken from print, print certainly has its drawbacks. Whilst paper creates an impression of lastingness, it will become damaged and eventually deteriorate. Paper is expensive, it is un-ecological, it will spoil, and it is space – as well time – consuming. In a chapter of Scholarly Publishing: The Electronic Frontier, Rob Kling and Roberta Lamb wrote, “Electronic publishing seems to have immense benefits – in providing economic payoffs to university presses, in making many academic practices more convenient and thereby increasing productivity, and in improving the diffusion of knowledge by reducing barriers between authors and readers.” However, a study directed in America by Student Monitor, and that appeared in The Washington Post, shows that 87% of textbook spending for the 2014 first semester was on print books. Further from this, in 2013 University of Washington lead a study that showed that 25% of humanities students bought physical versions of free eBooks. From this it could be deduced that technology is yet to banish print as an out-of-date medium of writing. If you would like read more studies, click here.

A Window of Digital Opportunity

A library, online
A library can be but a few clicks away. © Molly Jensen, 2016

In the user’s view, text availability is one of the big issues with printed scholarly texts. As students will express, it can be difficult to get your hands on specific research or additional sources. When an assessment is looming, and 50 or so students want to reference that one amazing source, which your lecturer hinted was their favourite and the perfect accompaniment, a sort of library war begins to take place. It is the library’s job to have an appropriate amount of copies of books, but this isn’t always possible due to costs and storage. One potential way to tackle this is by making texts available in an online library.

Ecosystem of Study

When thinking about whom scholarly publishing is for, we first think of the consumer; who is often either a student or a researcher. Other readers will spring to mind: lecturers, librarians, or a member of the public who has a specialist interest in a specific area, and other academics in similar fields of work. Scholarly publishing should be made easier to allow access to necessary materials.

Online libraries can be difficult to sift through in order to find that golden nugget of research. The preferred reading format, print or electronic, has been researched by the OAPEN-UK project ( It was found that of those who preferred reading from print, 88.6% of people found the text in print. Contrarily, of the people who prefer electronic, only just over half, 54.9%, were able to find the text in a digital format. This could suggest the challenge of navigating digital libraries, as well as a lacking in resources.

Libraries try to fill a massive, insurmountable need for knowledge, yet they work under a maximum-capacity rule, and this is a problem. Credit: Free Stock photos ,
Libraries try to fill a massive, insurmountable need for knowledge, yet they work under a maximum-capacity rule, and this is a problem. Credit: Free Stock photos, CDC Library, 2005

It is often the case that reading lists cannot be fulfilled by an academic institution’s own library, vastly due to expense. This could lead to a student missing a vital section of research that would have greatly added to their assessment. But, does a student expect to spend money on additional texts? Should a student wish to purchase a scholarly text, the price can become rather daunting for your average twenty-year-old, who has been using pasta with sweet corn as their main nutritional source for the last week. Supplementary textbooks are often readily available in libraries (as well as to purchase), however research monographs are expensive due to their specific fields of interest, making them scarce in libraries. This becomes a problem for a student of the arts and humanities who requires this niche research in order to complete their own work.

It is in an institution’s prerogative to support the learning of its scholars. There is a potential solution to this – interlibrary loans. The OAPEN-UK project found that when accessing a book, only 4.1% of people used an interlibrary loan, compared to 35.2% of people who bought their own copy. Normally a library, or student, has to pay to put in a request for an interlibrary loan once they have reached their quota, depending upon the university policy. Interlibrary loans can be time consuming, and even unfruitful. An especially difficult time to attain an interlibrary loan is when assessments are due. As the library becomes busier and more loans are requested, the process becomes even longer.

In Scholarly Publishing: The Electronic Frontier, Robin P. Peek writes “Paper has served us fairly well over the years. Before an acceptable alternative was available there was little reason to give serious discussion to abandoning it as a vehicle.” In an academic utopia, every library would have a printed copy of all the texts that anybody needed or wanted. But this is unfeasible. A library has to pay for the books it has, and a library only has so much money to spend. However, it is hypothetically doable with a suitable online library or even open access e-books.

What about Open Access? 

Peek describes, “A scholar wants people to read his or her work. For a work to be read, it must be found.” There is one very controversial suggestion that aims to solve library issues – Open access (OA).

As Martin Paul Eve explains in his book, Open Access and the Humanities: Contexts, Controversies and the Future, “The term “open access” refers to the removal of price and permission barriers to scholarly research. Open access means peer-reviewed academic research work that is free to read online and that anybody may redistribute and reuse, with some restrictions.” Many people who have reacted to this issue have claimed that OA is pragmatically unmanageable. On an economic scale how can OA be executed? How would labour that sustains OA be subsidised and who would pay for that? Certain websites have been created to push the OA movement. It could be argued that, should all scholarly publishing move over to a digitalised platform, there would perhaps be little expense and upkeep to be done, except on an editing level. This is the fantasy that OA is trying to fulfill.

Will an evolution to digital take place in academic publishing? Credit: Jorghex, 2007
Will an evolution to digital take place in academic publishing? Credit: Jorghex, 2007

The issue that academics take with OA is: why should they pour their time and efforts into a book, for it to be free? Where is the incentive? If the incentive stops, the writing stops. If the writing stops, the learning will be damaged.

Largely, the costs within scholarly publishing lie within the editing process. We place a massive amount of trust and value within scholarly texts and this must not be tarnished by avoidable errors. The value of academic publishing would become stale should the reader encounter mistakes within the texts, thus shattering the trust that the reader has placed within the author. On top of this, an editor is not simply a person who scribbles over a manuscript; they manage a project from concept to completion, and that kind of service is invaluable.

Eve continues to explain; “open access relies upon the potential of the internet to disseminate work almost indefinitely at a near-infinitesimal cost-per-copy. This is because, in the digital world, the majority of costs lie in the labour to reach the point of dissemination rather than in the transmission of each copy. Open access was not, therefore, truly feasible in times before this technology; OA requires the digital environment and the internet.” A model of free business has been advocated in the digital age. With an ever-expanding online web of knowledge, free information is perhaps being thrust upon businesses. The business of scholarly publishing is not exempt from this tsunami of thought – the thought of “freeconomics”. Knowledge on all matters is accessible at the click of a few buttons, and if scholarly publishing wishes to withstand the test of time, it must evolve.

In an interview for this article, William Hughes, Bath Spa University English Literature lecturer and academic writer, said:

“Online publishing, for me, doesn’t carry the same prestige as print. People want to own something physical and produce something physical.

If there was a consensus across the writing and printing spectrum, the shift would have happened by now, digital is not a superior medium of publishing yet. It might become one when the computer literary generation take over. Those who are enthusiastic about digital publishing, will want, and get, everyone else to do it.”

A Final Word

Peek states, “Technology often moves faster than society is prepared to deal with the changes.” When we increasingly receive much of our news and information through the internet and digital media, it only makes sense for academic texts to be made available digitally. Peek predicts that, ‘Someday digitalized publication will be the scholarly norm, not because it is the “high-tech” thing to do but because it is the logical thing to do.’ Digital technology feeds the cultural demand that society has for information. But before this shift takes place, a suitable medium must be designed which is applicable for all forms of publishing.

What Happens when you try to make an author out of a social media socialite?

Can celebrities famous for their lives online successfully transition over to the print industry?

Over the past fifteen years there has been a huge shift in what it means to be a celebrity; rather than being known for their craft, career or talent, a select few have been celebrated for their lavish lifestyles. Even more recently, many of them have chosen to write a book. But how does one successfully transition over to the print industry when you’re only known for your extremely active social media accounts?

In the past couple of years, there’s been a lot of discussion on what will happen to the book industry as digital starts to take over. But surely, it’s also important to see how those who have their career online make the transition over to print. Two examples of this are Zoella and Kim Kardashian, both extremely successful within in the bounds of their respective target audiences, released books within six months of each other, Girl Online (November 2014) and SELFISH (May 2015). Despite having the same job, in regards to their brand and product, they both took extremely different routes. Zoella rebranded herself as an author and wrote a fiction novel and Kim Kardashian put her brand into a photobook. These decisions undeniably affected the response they received from their target market and critics.

A Girl who started Online

Known almost exclusively by her online name, Zoella, Zoe Sugg has spent the last seven years cultivating an online brand empire. She has successful maintained long term partnerships with some of the biggest businesses on the British high street, such as Superdrug and WHSmith. In 2014 her brand grew expediently with the release of her debut fiction novel, Girl Online.


In the first week of its publication, The Bookseller announced Sugg had successfully “sold 78,109 copies….– more than JK Rowling, Dan Brown or EL James achieved with their first books”. One of the most prominent reasons behind these incredible figures is Suggs dedicated fan base of around 35.1 million across all her online platforms. But how did she manage to transfer the majority her online viewers to read a physical book? To answer this, you must ask: who will be buying the book? The parents. In a world where it’s becoming progressively harder to control what the young and impressionable look at, parents want to know that, if their child is going to be on be online, that they have a role model who will influence them in a positive way. This is exactly what the Zoella brand achieves and most distinctively so in her novel which preaches the importance of online safety.

Zoella Girl Online book signing at Waterstones Bluewater, Britain - 26 Nov 2014
©Glamour Magazine

Ever since the start of her career, Sugg has successfully created a persona (also known as her brand) that is uncanny to the everyday young teenager. Her channel is fixated on subjects and interests of a young girl growing up. She has triumphantly retained the same character that she had nine years ago, despite coming up to her late twenties. This causes her viewers to have a stronger connection between who they think she is and they also feel like they are growing up with her. With such a strong connection, it meant that Penguin could almost guarantee a strong reception to her book, despite nearly all her of her previous brand deals being executed exclusively online.

When entering an industry such as book publishing it’s crucial you build a positive reputation of yourself. But there is one aspect of her novel that caused Zoella to potentially lose the respect of her industry peers and more importantly, potential customers, and this was by hiring a ghost-writer.

When Sugg labeled herself as an author rather than a Youtuber writing a memoir, it suggested she wanted to branch out from her online presence. Yet expanding her audience is something that the Zoella brand may have been unsuccessful in. For an online brand, it is one thing to maintain the trust between the product and a regular customer but a whole different challenge to create a new relationship with a potential customer. When Girl Online was published, critics speculated whether she had hired a ghost writer. It was in December of that same year that a representative from Penguin announced “to be…accurate…Zoe Sugg did not write the book Girl Online on her own.” (Flood, Hannah 2014). It was from then on, that Sugg received a huge amount of criticism from websites such as the Independent. Reporters theorised the damage it would cause her brand which was built on being an honest and hardworking individual. It may also be the reason on why she hasn’t attempted to write a novel different from series she’s already created. Instead she’s only focused on developing the Girl Online Franchise.

It’s hard to criticise such an immensely triumphant franchise and whilst she did successfully integrate having a life online into a fiction novel, Zoella is proof that if you are going to try and stray from being a known only online and transverse to one of the most prestigious industries you must be honest with your audience. Stay clear of branding yourself as something that you fundamentally are not.

A SELFISH business venture

Unlike Zoe Sugg, Kim Kardashian West did the complete opposite. Instead of rebranding herself into an author she put her brand into a book. Published by the self-declared “most beautiful book shop in New York” Rizzoli, SELFISH is a 448-page book, which is literally filled with hundreds of seen and unseen ‘selfies’.

Copyright: Rizzoli

The Kardashian brand have a reputation for making items that have huge demand with limited availability (as can be seen in the Kylie lipstick range), by doing this they ride on the prospect that their products becomes more prestigious, one for the elitist. So, ideally if you combined a book, an authoritative and respected commodity, with a brand, known for producing desirable items, surely it would sell out almost immediately. This could have been one of the arguments behind Kardashian West’s concept. Her regular customer is most likely not interest in reading a book, yet there was a clear attempt to get past this. Her brand also doesn’t run on customer trust unlike Zoella. Kardashian West’s image is about decadence, luxury and self-exposure, so how do you guarantee physical sales? By marketing her product as a coffee table book and doing a pre-release, the photobook had to potential to gain recognition from those who don’t follow her online whilst still catering for her current fans. As stated by MENDO a coffee table book is a beautiful item which has the ability to pull in all different types of people, “from business men to art students”.


Unfortunately, what could have been an extremely successful concept, in reality, did not come through. In April of 2015 Kardashian West had a limited-edition presale comprising of 500 signed copies of her upcoming book. Despite the hefty price tag of $60 the customer response from this looked extremely positive with a sell out in less than a minute. Although, after this, sales dropped and only achieved 32,000 in first three weeks, a tiny number in comparison to what Sugg had achieved six months prior. Considering Kardashian West’s following is nearly five times (165.5 million) larger than Sugg’s, her book’s failure was extremely surprising. One would have assumed, with such a large audience, her book would be an instant success.

Kim’s attempt at making an autobiography through pictures, whilst seems like a perfect concept for a lifestyle socialite, lacks anything intriguing. Most importantly, why would her fans pay $10 for content they’ve already seen for free and this is what the sales figures seem to reflect. This may be the crucial reason behind the books hesitant beginning, Kim Kardashian West’s life is already plastered all over the internet. Any promoting that she would have attempted to do, such as her infamous ‘when you have nothing to wear’ naked selfie, most likely blended into the rest of her social presence.

kimk©Instagram: Kim Kardashian West

SELFISH is arguably the opposite to what can be learned from Zoella’s novel. It shows us that if you are a socialite famous, for being famous, you must work extremely hard to distinguish your celebrity memoir from what your fans already know about you. Because she didn’t re-brand her as an author customers lacked interest. As previously argued by her critics why would fans pay out $10 for something they’ve already seen for free. A problem we’ve seen widespread across the internet with multiple industries.

The Aftermath

Despite the ghost writing controversy, she encountered along the way, Zoe Sugg has continued to promote her sequels, Girl Online: On Tour, which have gone on to be extremely successful. Kim Kardashian remastered her book (October 2016) but is not promoting nearly as much, rather she focusing on her other business ventures. Possibly reflecting her personal views on the success of her book.

SELFISH and Girl Online both beg the question is it possible to create a successful book off of just your social media presence and lifestyle brand. Both Sugg and Kardashian West are extremely affluent from a result of what they’ve achieved digitally. Yet by looking at the response they received, in either criticism or sales, it’s crucial to know that if you do make the move from digital to print you must prove that what you have to offer is worth its weight in gold. It must have substance to survive the print industry and be profitable, and this is what Zoe Sugg got right in her transition. Books demand respect, time and deep consideration, they are not just a regular brand deal.

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How Amazon Dominates the Online Publishing Retail Market of Print Books and has Begun Moving into the Brick and Mortar Book Industry

The huge online retailer Amazon currently dominates the online market of print book sales, and has even begun to open brick and mortar bookstores in its expansion into the market. Its command of online sales is unparalleled and it’s interesting to see whether or not they will begin to command the sales of books among brick and mortar bookstores as well. With their foot in that door, only time will tell as to what kind of success they have in a different world of publishing, with competitors like Waterstones recognising this threat. They may have to fight hard with the giant to stay in business.

Amazon Dominance

Amazon has dominated online print sales for many years, beginning with its introduction into the publishing industry in 1995. Between then and the present day it’s risen to dominate the industry, towering above its competitors.

According to a survey by RBC Capital, Amazon sales were at around 90%, where the next highest, eBay, was around 38%. The companies closest in rivalry are also huge, but don’t come close to Amazon, which owns roughly 40% of print and digital sales in America.

RBC Capital Markets Survey (Taken from Business Insider)

Brick and mortar book companies have the benefit of seeing what Amazon did to online competitors, so they know what to expect. It’s anyone’s guess as to how Amazon will do in this area.

The US giant has opened stores in Seattle and San Diego, called Amazon Books, and planned one in Boston among other places. The company put many stores out of business in the past, including the bookstore company Borders, and damaged Barnes and Noble. How far this competitiveness will continue to push others out of the way is a subject of interest and hugely important for the future of the book industry, as we could be looking at mainly or only Amazon stores, with other retailers gone bankrupt. Amazon then would have the ability to do what they liked with complete control, for example, raise prices and since they’re the main outlet for books, the public would be limited in choice.

Brick and Mortar Bookstores

Giant Barnes and Noble were hurt by the discounted prices and other factors imposed by Amazon, but have survived. Their brick and mortar chain is strong and they also sell online, whereas Amazon dominates online but have only recently begun to expand into brick and mortar bookstores. For now, Barnes and Noble are ahead with bookstores, and have hindsight, witnessing what Amazon did in the digital market. If Amazon begins to expand more and more into print, it’s uncertain who would win the struggle for dominance.

Barnes and Noble will be one of the largest threats to Amazon’s brick and mortar expansion. It’s been around since 1873, and Amazon only joined the book market as a whole in 1995. The history of Barnes and Noble is intriguing. Leonard Riggio, a former clerk who attended New York University aimed to compete with Barnes and Noble in the 1960s. He aimed to compete with them at first, believing he could do better at serving students. He eventually acquired them himself. Following this, the store apparently became “one of New York’s finest bookstores, known for its knowledgeable staff, wide selection and great service.”
As one of the oldest bookstores around today, it achieved many great things, including becoming “the first bookseller in America to advertise on television”, and “the first bookseller in America to discount books by offering New York Times bestsellers at 40% off publishers’ list prices.”

A Barnes and Noble bookstore (Photo by

Despite this history of success, it now faces a very real threat, just like other well established giants like Waterstones and WHSmith do.

This speculation also stretches to other countries. What could become of huge retailers like Waterstones, the number one retailer in the UK and other giants worldwide? The future could be one where only or mostly huge Amazon warehouses exist, distributing literature to customers, with every other book company forced out of business, from small to large independent stores and others. But Amazon could also fail and be pushed out of the market. It’s unclear at this stage.

Customer satisfaction will be a key factor in this. Amazon focus on their customer rather than their competitors, as CEO Jeff Bezos believes this is important. The customers are the ones who buy the product, not the competitors, so rather than trying to outsmart their rivals Amazon has gone directly to their audience.

According to Sandeep Mathrani, the boss of a shopping-mall, Amazon wanted to open four hundred brick and mortar bookstores over the course of a few years. Amazon didn’t confirm this but did state its wishes to expand into the bookstore market, albeit on a smaller scale at first.

Amazon’s Strengths

Amazon also offers free shipping in some cases, a tough thing for competitors to imitate, as well as servicing a broad area in the western world. Such benefits to Amazon, combined with the fact that it’s worth hundreds of billions of dollars, means it has a great advantage over other companies and could simply take losses while it establishes itself over more established rivals. It’s able to afford this, while many other businesses aren’t.

Amazon rose to dominance in a very short space of time in the online arena, pushing other companies like eBay far down the list. The print arena is another matter, for sure, with other factors to consider on different companies. Brand satisfaction, loyalty and the ability to adapt in time are elements of success that other companies can draw upon. Maybe others can even outsmart Amazon with the foreknowledge of its past dominance, ambitions and strategies. But whether or not any of these companies can battle with the huge financial resources Amazon draws upon is one major issue.

If Amazon sustains huge losses it may wish to pull out of the brick and mortar business, but this doesn’t seem likely to happen after seeing what it’s capable of doing.

Another reason Amazon holds huge advantages over bookstores is that it doesn’t only stock books now, but profits from selling almost every product imaginable. Bookstores deriving revenue from books alone lack the funding to compete in many ways.

Amazon Bookstore in the US (Taken from

Expansion overseas for Amazon is another factor. As well as planning more bookstores in the USA, it also plans stores and warehouses in Australia by September next year. This expansion would be huge and pave the way for even more dominance for them as a company. With such influence, is it possible anyone can compete?

However, they’re not infallible and CEO Jeff Bezos once lost ‘$3 Billion In An Hour After Amazon Misses On Earnings’. This shows how things don’t always go their way and how losses can be high. However, the company is still one of the richest in the world. Jeff Bezos is America’s second richest man, behind Bill Gates.

Innovative Amazon vs. Established Bookstore Companies

Barnes and Noble and Waterstone’s as well as all other large bookstores stand the greatest chance of surviving Amazon’s aggressive expansion. Smaller indie stores will suffer the hardest and many will undoubtedly be forced out of business if Amazon’s huge ambitions go ahead. The big companies may have to start introducing new measures to ensure advantages and consolidate themselves over Amazon, as it is a newcomer in their field, where they are much more experienced.

Amazon is innovative no doubt, but can it invade brick and mortar giants’ home territory so easily without hardships and significant drawbacks? One would say not. It’s conceivable to even say that corporations owning large bookstore chains have the power and established presence to put pressure on Amazon as it explores the waters of this new area. They already have a giant pool of consumers who visit their stores and prefer buying books in person as opposed to shopping online. Many probably also disapprove of Amazon because of this and the way it operates. If they use this to apply pressure on Amazon during its growing pains then they could conceivably interfere with its growth, inflict losses, maintain dominance or even push it back out of the market.

Amazon will definitely be able to afford the losses due to its size, but if it was losing money from brick and mortar, this would affect the company as a whole and may deem it better to pull out of the market to focus on increasing its wealth by staying where it’s most successful. It’s been mostly successful online and maybe this is where it belongs. Only time will tell.

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 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.

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.

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’

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.