Books: Reports of their death have been greatly exaggerated


I couldn’t help feeling a little pleased on hearing the news. Waterstones is ending sales of Kindle from its stores, after they have dwindled to virtually nothing. Meanwhile sales of actual, real books have soared.

Why do I take personal satisfaction from this? It may have something to do with the fact of a long remembered conversation. Twenty years ago a colleague of mine on the niche trade magazine where I had the misfortune to work, announced proudly that he was leaving to work for an internet company to help them produce content. This was 1995, when the internet was in its infancy, so it was quite a brave thing for him to do, I suppose.

I think it was his smug faith in the new technology that got my back up. He said that in the future all writing would be online. I said, no people will always want to read from print on paper if they have the choice. He said with a fanatical little glint in his eye: “Very soon you will be able to get your own news on a handheld device, and you will be able to read a book on it. People won’t need paper.”

I left it there. I thought it would be a long time before the technology to allow people to read a book online would be ready. And even when it was, I seriously doubted that they would replace real book sales.

Well we were both right. The technology did come, but it took 12 years before the first Kindle was sold – in 2007. I suspect that was a little longer than my colleague expected. Now you can get everything you want to read personalised on one device – a tablet. But if you want a comfortable, long read of a book, you have to buy a specialist e-reader like Kindle. A tablet, I am told, strains the eyes after a while.

There is no doubt too, that e-books have carved a niche out of the market, they are convenient for certain people at certain times. But they do not seem to be supplanting books. The evidence seems to be that their sales have peaked. And sales of real, physical books have begun to grow, at least in the UK, this year.

There may be some quibbles about this from fans of online reading. The peak in sales of e-books like Kindle probably also has something to do with the fact that people are buying tablets instead, (though as I said, it is harder to read books on a tablet). There is also the fact that once people have a Kindle they don’t need to “upgrade” to another one.  So sales are bound to slow as time goes on.

But market share would go on steadily growing rather than declining if people really preferred reading from an electronic device than something with covers and turnable pages. The market share is thought to be more like one in five books than one in two. But we don’t exactly know what the figure is, mainly because Jeff Bezos of Amazon won’t tell anyone how many Kindle’s he’s selling. He is apparently frequently pictured in front of charts  showing booming sales of Kindle without any figures attached to them! jeff bezos kindle

And that, in itself, is telling.books

You’d probably have to really pressure Bezos to get him to admit it, but he must occasionally wake up in the night wondering why he ever launched Kindle. His main purpose, one suspects, is to consolidate his near monopoly on online book sales.

And here we come to the heart of what annoyed me about my colleague all those years ago as he leant against his desk in a converted workshop in Clerkenwell. It was the placing of technology above content. So what if you can read something on an electronic gizmo instead of a bit of paper? It is just, in some circumstances, a bit more convenient. Arguably it is less wasteful and environmentally destructive than using paper. Though even that is a grey area.

But who cares really about the delivery system? Unless you like showing off your gizmoes. Content is king. The delivery  method of a body of literature or news is not a matter of great importance except to people who want to make money out of it.

Content is king. There will always be a place for paper.



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