Does the eReader and eBook Sales Decline Really Signal a Resurgence for Print Books?

Depending on who you ask, e-books and e-readers are either at the vanguard of a technological renaissance that benefits authors and readers or are slowly destroying the traditional publishing business and the livelihood of the authors that rely on it.  Another round in this debate was kicked off this fall with the release of recent sales data for e-readers and e-books and arguments have been made on both sides of this battle about the significance of the data.

The Decline in Sales of e-books.

Throughout much of 2015, publishers have noted a steep decline in the sale of e-books and, in September, the New York Times reported that e-book sales had dropped by 10% during the first five months of the year. The sales figures from this report came from the Association of American Publishers who collected the data from over 1,200 publishers.  This downward sales has continued and earlier this fall HarperCollins, Hachette and Simon & Schuster all reported significant declines in the sale of e-books. The Times concluded that:

E-books’ declining popularity may signal that publishing, while not immune to technological upheaval, will weather the tidal wave of digital technology better than other forms of media, like music and television.

The decline in the sale of e-books has also developed, perhaps not surprisingly, with a decline in the sale of e-readers.

The Decline in Sales of e-readers.

In October, the Pew Research Centre published a report showing a significant decline in the ownership of e-readers.  The report, which was based on the results of a survey, showed that 32% of adults reported owning an e-reader in 2014 but this number had dropped to only 19% by 2015.  Pew attributed the decline in e-reader ownership to the increasing prevalence of smartphones and tablets rather than a decline in the consumption of e-books:

These changes are all taking place in a world where smartphones are transforming into all-purpose devices that can take the place of specialized technology, such as music players, e-book readers and gaming devices.

In the current technological environment, single purpose devices like the Kindle, are having a hard time competing with all-purpose devices such as smartphones and tablets.  This decline has become so pronounced that Waterstones, one of Britain’s largest bookstores, decided to stop selling the Kindle due to “pitiful” sales.  And on this side of the pond, Barnes & Noble reports that sales of it’s Nook device are down 28% so far this year.

The e-book Market

While e-reader ownership and e-books sales from traditional publishers are declining, it is not clear whether the overall e-book market is itself in decline.  While it is certainly possible this is happening, a number of arguments have been made that the overall e-book is at worst stable and at best growing. In reaching this conclusion, the significance of the sales data has been called into question on a number of different fronts.

First, a  decline in the sale of e-readers by itself does not necessarily equate to a decline in the overall consumption of e-books.  This is true, in part, because a dedicated e-reader is not required to read e-books.  Amazon has long had an e-reader app that can be used to view e-books on many smartphones and tablets without the need to own a Kindle or other dedicated e-reader. It is certainly possible to maintain a vibrant e-book market while dedicated e-reader ownership declines provided enough readers continue to buy e-books for their smartphones and tablets.

Second, after numerous stories were published about the decline in sales of e-books, it was quickly pointed out that this data only applied to the sale of e-books from traditional publishers and did not address the sale of e-books from self-publishers and many independent publishers. The sales of e-boooks from self-publishers and independents have remained steady and, in some cases, risen over the last year.  Still, hard numbers are not easy to come by as Amazon, the undisputed largest seller of e-books, does not release it’s sales data.

Finally, it has been argued that the sales of e-books from traditional publishers have likely been declining because these publishers raised the price of their e-books after the antitrust litigation ended.  There has been some disagreement about whether this was a calculated move by traditional publishers to force readers back to print books or simply a miscalculation by these publishers regarding the willingness of readers to pay more for e-books than Amazon had been charging.  In any case, one unanswered question is what happened to the lost sales from those traditionally published e-books.  Did those readers gravitate back to print books, transition to the self-published and indie market or simply keep their money in their pocket?

Of course, many authors would just like to reach the largest number of readers possible without regard to the format of their book and these authors see e-books as a way to extend their reach.  Others follow the e-book route because they are unhappy with the profit sharing offered by traditional publishers and still others do so because they have been shut out of the traditional publishing system altogether.  The result has been the creation of two different publishing worlds: one for traditionally published authors that rely on print books and, to some degree, e-books and another for self-published authors that rely entirely on the e-book format.

The question many would like answered is whether the digital publishing world is destined to chip away at the traditional publishing model until print books become a niche market.  In a society that has been programmed to want clear winners and losers, it is probably not surprising  that each side of this debate is now arguing the declining sales data supports their business model.  It is not certain, however, that a clear winner will be declared any time soon and it is possible that the best outcome for this fight might be something that is anathema to those seeking winners and losers: co-existence.

 

Review: In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware

Ruth Ware employs the murder at an English country estate device to a mostly satisfying effect in her first novel, In a Dark, Dark Wood.  In doing so, Ware creates a crazy quilt of characters and a plot that is part mystery and part thriller.  The mostly likable narrator, Nora, is a crime fiction writer living in London who receives an invitation to attend a “hen” –a kind of bachelorette party– being thrown for Claire, her childhood best friend.  The hen takes place at an isolated country house and, as Nora has not seen Claire in years due to an unspecified falling out, the stage is set for some obvious drama.  Shortly after arriving, Nora learns that Claire is going to marry Nora’s ex-boyfriend and the discomfort level quickly ratchets up to eleven.  To make things worse, Nora soon realizes that Flo, Claire’s friend who organized the hen, is mentally unstable.  Add to this a landline that inexplicably stops working, nonexistent cell phone reception, a mysterious set of footprints in the snow leading to the backdoor of the house and an unloaded shotgun over the fireplace and it is clear that something very bad is going to happen.

Although In a Dark, Dark Wood is the debut novel from Ruth Ware, she has experience in the publishing business and her knowledge is evident in both the structure and pacing of the novel.  Her prose is fluid and the pages fly by so quickly you will be tempted to read the book in one sitting.  Despite these strengths, the book is not without it’s problems.  You will almost certainly guess the murderer’s identity early on making you wonder why the narrator hasn’t figured this out too.  In the latter part of the book the narrator seems frustratingly obtuse about criminal investigations and engages in some behavior that feels suspiciously like plot manipulation.  These issues were not enough to make me want to fling the book against the wall in disgust but there was some serious eye rolling going on.  Still, the dialogue is sharp and although this is more a light mystery than a thriller, there are several moments of tension and outright fear that are well written.  Despite the plot problems I enjoyed this book in large part because of Ware’s writing and the interesting characters.  All in all a solid debut novel from an author I looked forward to following.

In a Dark, Dark Wood, Gallery/Scout Press, 320 pp., $26.00.

 

 

Review: The Grownup by Gillian Flynn

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The Grownup is a melange of a classic Jamesian ghost story with a modern psychological tale reminiscent of Flynn’s prior novel, Gone Girl.  At 64 pages, the book occupies that no man’s land between short story and novella but manages to pack some very interesting characters into that short space.  First published in George R.R. Martin’s Rogues under the title “What Do You Do?,” it tells the story of a young, unnamed narrator who starts work as a beggar with her one-eyed mother before becoming a “therapist” that gives hand jobs to customers in the back room of a psychic’s shop.  She is a small-time, streetwise grifter that has a knack for reading people and then taking advantage of them. When her carpel tunnel syndrome prevents her from continuing to work as a “therapist,” she is forced to move to the front of the shop to work as a clairvoyant.   It is there she meets Susan Burke, a rich mother with two children and a serious problem.  Susan and her family have just moved in to Carterhook Manor, a creepy Victorian mansion that Susan believes may be haunted and may have possessed her stepson, Miles.  She hires the young con artist to cleanse the house and the woman agrees anticipating a profitable and easy job.

When the narrator visits the house, however, she soon suspects she may have underestimated both the ease of the job and the severity of the problem.  Susan’s psychological and physical conditions have deteriorated and her stepson, Miles, is far from a normal teenage boy.  The first part of the of the story builds nicely to some very disturbing scenes and reaches a frightening climax when the narrator finally realizes she is in over her head and tries to escape.  Problems with the story begin to surface, though, when the explanation for these hauntings is finally revealed.  Flynn takes the reader a little too firmly by the hand during the reveal and provides an almost clinical explanation of the events which only deflates the sense of horror built up to that point.  This results in a story that feels rushed and an additional twist at the end that feels less inventive and more like Flynn couldn’t decide between two different storylines.  And while the usual writing advice is to cut more rather than add more, I think the story would have been well served by the addition of another ten to twenty pages.  That said, I enjoyed the ironic fate of the narrator and Flynn does a good job of blending modern characters into the framework of the classic ghost story.

The Grownup, Crown Publishers, 64 pp., $5.99.

 

Review: Slade House by David Mitchell

Review: Slade House by David Mitchell

Slade House, a series of five horror vignettes connected by a house as mysterious and evil as Shirley Jackson’s Hill House, is a creepy homage to classic haunted house stories. The first section, “The Right Sort,” was originally published via 280 tweets over the course of a week. Mitchell then wrote an additional four sections and the resulting story has now been published as a proper novel. In the book, the narrators of each vignette unravel the secrets of the Grayer twins and their mysterious home, Slade House. Every nine years someone is drawn to Slade House, either by invitation or in an attempt to solve its mystery. After entering the grounds through a small, black iron door found in a narrow alley, each character is enticed to travel deeper into the house by the promised fulfillment of some deeply personal desire. After that, they are never seen again.

Mitchell does an admirable job creating distinctive voices for each of the five narrators which range from a thirteen year old boy with Asberger-like problems, to a racist DI, to an overweight and lovesick college student. You don’t have to be a particularly careful reader to guess what will happen to the narrators after reading the first vignette but each tale has enough twists to make you question whether they will somehow escape this fate. One particular weakness of the book is that the climatic scenes of each section often feel at odds with the carefully choreographed tension and creepy atmosphere built up by Mitchell. This results in reveals and dialogue that seem as though they belong in a very different type of horror novel. The final vignette, however, does provide a modicum of a twist and should please fans of the storyline interwoven by Mitchell throughout many of his novels, including The Bone Clocks and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. It is not necessary, however, to have read those books to enjoy Slade House.