The Fall of the E-books

Digital technology has conquered music, maps, and photographs. Here’s why it’s failing to conquer books. 

Electronic books are cheap, easy to download, and light to carry. Popular thinking over the last several years has affirmed the belief that print is gasping its last breaths and reading is going digital. In a 2006 Guardian article, Jeff Jarvis called the book “an outdated means of communicating information.” In 2010, tech mogul Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the One Laptop per Child project, predicted that the demise of physical books would occur within five years. And in 2011, TechCrunch insisted, “they’re not going to make it past this decade…The time has come to move on.” The death of the book seemed inevitable: as CDs overtook records and iTunes overtook CDs, so e-books would naturally overtake the printed text.

A current of fatalism permeated this thinking. Techno-utopians hailed the e-book as one of the greatest developments of the information revolution. Techno-dystopians perceived in it the decline of intellectual and humanist values. But both saw an inexorable movement to electronic reading. It was survival of the fittest, and the e-book—cheaper, lighter, greener, and trendier than its ungainly ancestor—was clearly slotted to come out on top.

Sales corroborated these predictions. In 2010, e-book sales grew by 252%. In 2012, still respectably, by 28%. But recent numbers tell a different story. In 2013, adult e-book sales were only up 4.8% while all U.S. e-book sales were down 5%. Meanwhile, according to the Association of American Publishers, hardcover book sales in the U.S. were up over 10%. To the surprise of many, the explosive e-book sales that occurred with the initial introduction of the Kindle, Nook, iPad, and tablets are receding dramatically. In The Washington Post, Neil Irwin writes, “The fact that the leveling off is already happening with e-books suggests that the ratio of printed books sold to electronic books is going to stabilize at a higher level than seemed likely a year or two ago.”

Various explanations have been proffered. One holds that a lot of e-book sales growth happened in 2010 and 2011 with mega bestselling trilogies like Fifty Shades of Grey and The Hunger Games. As these books dropped off the bestseller list, e-book sales diminished accordingly. Another theory points to data suggesting that e-books are well suited only to certain niches of the reading experience. Oren Teicher, CEO of the American Booksellers Association, notes that certain genres sell better as e-books than others. For instance, e-books are useful for discardable, one-time reads like thrillers and romances, but not a popular medium for nonfiction and literary fiction. We like to read them on planes where ease and efficiency of travel are high priorities, but in our living rooms, there’s no finer pleasure than curling up with a book itself. You can’t curl up with a Kindle.

This brings us to the third explanation, which is simply that the novelty of electronic books has worn off. Fair enough, but why has it worn off? Why are e-books being relegated to novel or niche experiences? Why, when digital technology has conquered music, maps, and photographs, has it failed to conquer books? Right now, e-books represent slightly less than 25% of total book sales, not an inconsequential share. Still, reading is clearly one segment of our lives that maintains some partial immunity to the digital onslaught.

Part of the resistance may have to do with the tactile element of reading. We feel the substance of a book’s ideas in the materiality of its pages and the weight of the text in our hands. The mistake of the digital prophets was in believing that a book is just data. It’s not. We take pleasure in the yellowed edges and musty scent of old books, which unite us across time with friends or strangers who treasured them before us. We flip back and forth across chapters—not an easy feat with an e-book—to refresh our memory of a passage, to connect details, images, and arguments as the book unfolds. Books are embedded in an experience that frames our reception of the words themselves. E-readers implicitly acknowledge this in their attempt to replicate the experience of turning pages with the finger-flick required to “turn” the screen. But it’s a haunted action, fitted to an object that is no longer there.

This experiential factor is more than just habitual. A study by Kate Garland, lecturer in psychology at the University of Leicester, found that people who read books electronically are less likely to remember what they read and often have to reread several times in order to comprehend and retain information, especially when it is new or complex. Garland explains that when we recall something, we either just know it in the sense that it comes to us effortlessly or we remember it by cuing ourselves to the context in which we encountered the information. Context is also important in going from “remembering” to “knowing.” The more associations accrue around a memory, the more likely we are to absorb it. (Neuroscientists hypothesize that this is because evolution shaped our minds to easily recall location cues as a means of navigating memories and retrieving information.) Printed books offer us more cues and associations for contextualizing the information they contain than e-books. The cover, font, shape and weight of a book, and the physical dimensions of the page all help to embed the memory of what we’ve read.

In other words, a book’s physical artistry matters. Digitization overlooks the history of our treatment of books as aesthetic objects, but the value we place on the language and ideas they contain is reflected in our attention to their appearance. Technophiles might argue that this is a superficial aspect of reading. Nevertheless, a cover rounds out the singularity of a book. We no longer craft leather volumes and gold-lettered spines, but book covers are still beautiful, colorful creations, carefully matched to the worlds they introduce. E-books dissolve that particularity. Swallowed by the generic plastic cover of a Kindle, one book bears the same nondescript stamp as any number of others. This disregard for the inimitability of books—their status as unique intellectual creations—is at the heart of our aversion for e-books.

And while digitization is valuable as a mode of preservation, it is worth remembering that great libraries are museums of knowledge, remarkable not only for the information they contain but for the artistic display they offer. Books are, after all, works of art. Even in the digital age, bookshelves remain prominent decorative features of dens, studies, and living rooms. We value our collections, large or small, as extensions of ourselves—our ethics and interests, our accumulated experience and knowledge. They express our interior life in ways other representations of identity, like clothes, cannot. None of this makes books vital, but it does mean that they play an important personal and cultural function. When their absence leaves our living spaces feeling sterile, we recognize that just because we can consume books electronically doesn’t mean we always want to.

Perhaps most significantly, digitization makes books seem of lesser value. The reduction of weighty material to data on a screen and the staggeringly low prices of e-books encourage the belief that books are trivial. George Packer at The New Yorker writes that readers “are being conditioned to think that books are worth as little as a sandwich.” Dennis Johnson, an independent publisher, suggests that Amazon’s e-books, many of them barely or carelessly edited, foster the idea that a book is “a thing of minimal value…It’s a widget.” This is no doubt why e-readers are often deemed acceptable for thrillers and romances but not for more substantive texts. The unspoken sentiment seems to be that consuming high-quality books electronically degrades both the books and the reading experience.

It turns out that Karl Marx’s summation of capitalism is also an apt account of digital technology’s effect on books: “All that is sacred becomes profane.” Make no mistake, books have long been sacred objects. Not just the Bible or Hamlet, The Origin of the Species or Harry Potter, but all texts that engage in the work of the imagination and the exchange of ideas. There is something irreverent and unsatisfying about downloading these books side-by-side with Angry Birds or reading them in the same case that holds Trashy Title Here. Despite the best efforts of big data gurus, it seems we still care about words and ideas. Books are cultural touchstones. They’ve withstood bannings and burnings. They’ll probably withstand the Kindle too.

So what can we learn from the shortcomings of the ambitious e-book predictions? First, that explosive growth, like the kind initially seen in the e-book market, can make it difficult to make intelligent forecasts. Staggering numbers cause us to misinterpret success and draw inflated conclusions about future trends.

The second fallacy has been in thinking that innovative technologies can be applied indiscriminately across all aspects of culture and experience, that the digital revolution will necessarily be total. But we want different things from different experiences and it’s foolish to assume that what has worked in one industry is going to work in another. Even in the midst of revolution, some things stay the same. In fact, it might be precisely because so much is changing that we take comfort in the familiarity in a few old-fashioned pursuits.