Glad Tidings for E-Books

On a rainy Sunday afternoon in November, I decided to read historian Antonia Fraser's Must You Go? My Life with Harold Pinter (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday). Pinter, the playwright, actor, and Nobel Prize winner in literature died of cancer in late 2008, and Fraser, his lover and then wife for more than 30 years, had put off work on her biography of Elizabeth I so she could collect this diary of their lives together. The reviews had been enticing: "Glowing," wrote Dwight Garner in the New York Times, "There's hardly a dull page." In the early 1980s as a correspondent, I had met them in London, had read at least one of Fraser's books, and had seen nearly all Pinter's plays and movies. So I reached for my iPad and for $9.55 downloaded the book via the Kindle app. (My wife has nearly full possession of the family Kindle.) The entire process had taken barely more than a minute, and I spent a satisfying evening with a book that, for all its appeal to me, was hardly intended to attract a mass American audience.

As recently as late 2007, the purchase of this book would have involved a trip to a bookstore, the distinct possibility that, given its rarified subject, it would be out of stock or, if ordered from Amazon, would not arrive for a week unless I was willing to pay the high cost of expedited shipping. The odds are that those prospective obstacles would have led me to do something else, and I would never have gotten around to reading Must You Go? My Life with Harold Pinter. That would have been too bad, but hardly a big deal. By now, the notion has embedded in my mind that I can choose on a whim to read a book and obtain it instantly, a fundamental change in the psychology of book buying. You don't really possess the book in the sense that it lands on your shelf as a lifetime fixture, but the notion that the book is available and affordable is a significant incentive to make the purchase.

About 22,000 print copies of Must You Go? My Life with Harold Pinter have been shipped, according to the publisher. As of last week, Bookscan, covering about three-quarters of actual sales, recorded 6,591 copies sold in the six weeks since the book was released, which, by the standards of high-end nonfiction is not a bad start, especially with the Christmas gift season in full swing. The number of digital books sold for the title is not available, but the latest report from the Association of American Publishers shows that, overall, e-books now represent about 8.7 percent of the $9 billion book market (an increase of 3.4 percent for all books for the year to date). Last year, the e-book percentage was 3.3, and in 2007, barely more than 0.6 percent. If publishing revenue numbers are up for 2010, and e-books are making an increasing contribution towards those totals, there is cause for optimism about an industry that has perennially been described as besieged for one reason or another.

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Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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