'The Book Is Dead'? Let That Myth Rest in Peace

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Times are changing rapidly, but one fact remains certain: Readers and writers will continue to thrive in some form

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Anyone with the remotest interest in publishing knows that this has been a period of extraordinary activity in the way books are being distributed and read. But, looking back at the first months of 2011, including some of my own pieces (April 13, April 20), I am still amazed at how much is happening, and how quickly. So here in brief summary are some highlights of what truly has been a remarkable season.

The E-Book Surge

In February, the Association of American Publishers reported that sales of e-books had risen to $90.3 million for the month, which represented 20.4 percent of total revenues for book sales. This was the highest percentage of any category of books and is especially notable because the sale of hardcover and mass market books showed a significant drop. As explained in the industry newsletter Shelf Awareness, "the AAP attributed the gain primarily to buying by consumers who had received e-readers as gifts and noted that e-sales of backlist titles has grown substantially. 'Many publishers report that e-book readers who enjoy a newly released book will frequently buy an author's full backlist.'" This dramatic increase in e-book sales across a range of e-readers, tablets, and mobile devices such as the iPhone did not, however, offset an overall decline in revenue for book sales among publishers through February of about 5 percent.

Striking as they are, these numbers are really just a snapshot rather than a conclusive sample, because only 16 publishers are reporting e-books sales. But as recently as 2007, e-book sales were negligible. When publishers predict that their digital revenues for trade books could be in the range of 15 to 20 percent by 2012, those numbers no longer seem like a stretch. Every publisher now has an e-book strategy, which means gradually making their entire backlists--in some cases, thousands of titles--available as e-books. As the price of e-readers comes down and the popularity of multi-use tablets increases (still mainly the iPad), the e-book phenomenon has moved from the margins to the center of what publishing will be in the 21st century.

The Myth that "The Book is Dead"

Robert Darnton, the Harvard librarian and our preeminent writer about books from the perspective of history, has a fascinating piece in the current issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education that, among other observations, demolishes the notion that books overall are in inexorable decline. Darnton quotes 2009 numbers provided by Bowker, the data agency for publishing, which records 288,355 new and reissued titles and speculates that the numbers for 2010 and 2011 will show continuing increases; a further 764,448 titles in 2009 fell into a "nontraditional" category of self-published, micro-niche, and print-on-demand books, according to Bowker. "However it is measured," Darnton wrote, "the population of books is increasing, not decreasing and certainly not dying." Not surprisingly, Darnton's optimistic judgment is criticized by those who contend that book reading is in decline. My view is that books are being read, but the means of delivery are changing.

In fact, a recent Wall Street Journal survey on self-publishing concluded that e-book titles priced as low as 99 cents are making an increasing impact on the market. Jeffrey Trachtenberg, the newspaper's respected publishing reporter, wrote: "As digital sales surge, publishers are casting a worried eye towards the previously scorned self-published market. Unlike five years ago, when self-published writers rarely saw their works on the same shelf as the industry's biggest names, the low cost of digital publishing coupled with Twitter and other social-networking tools, has enabled previously unknown writers to make a splash." At the grass-roots level, I noted a story in my local weekly, the Greenwich Citizen, about a forum at the Greenwich Library, which claims the highest circulation of books (1.5 million) of any library in Connecticut. The moderator, Ernest Fleishman, former superintendent of the community's public schools summarized the discussion: "Books are holding up." He said. The headline was: "The verdict is in--the book is not dead."

The Bricks-and-Mortar Challenge

The bankruptcy of Borders is still playing out and the indicators for the chain's recovery have not improved. More than a third of Borders 600 superstores are already closed or in the final stages of liquidation. A Bloomberg News report said that the chain is "seeking at least $50 million in additional financing as sales trail expectations and publishers demand cash in advance." Borders already has a $505 million "debtor-in-possession" loan, which apparently will not be enough to cover costs unless a credible recovery plan emerges before that money runs out. Meanwhile, Judge Martin Glenn of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court did approve a bonus plan for key employees as an incentive for them to pursue an acceptable strategy for survival. But he also expressed his concern for the fate of Borders's 11,000 full and part-time employees, which, he said, "depends on a successful sale or reorganization." Meanwhile, other major booksellers and the independents are reconfiguring their stores to emphasize the availability of digital devices and non-book paraphernalia and gifts, which seem to be catching on. Sales of downloadable audiobooks have been growing, but these seem to be mainly sold to iPod and MP3 fans. Nonetheless, this is another category for booksellers to develop.

Not surprisingly, Amazon is the greatest beneficiary so far in the reinvention in the book marketplace, but it faces meaningful competition from Apple, B&N.com, Sony, and others. While Barnes & Noble has shown no interest in acquiring the remaining assets of Borders stores if the company ultimately fails, its senior executives, including chairman and founder Len Riggio, have been outspoken in their belief that that their superstore dominance, combined with a successful on-line business and e-book sales, provide a solid basis for growth and profitability.

For those of us in all aspects of publishing, these are heady times--which is a mix of dizzying, exciting, and to be candid, somewhat intimidating, given the pace of transformation and the unknowable consequences of so dramatic a period of upheaval. One outcome is certain--there will be books and they will be read, one way or another.

Image credit: flickr/Lin Pernille Photgraphy; grilled cheese; goXunu Reviews

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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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