I bought my first eBook in 1999. Back then, eBook publishing was like a frontier. Most publishers e-mailed the books to you, and the process wasn’t automated, so if you bought something on the weekend, you’d have to wait a day or two to get your e-mail. Sometimes they were even sent as RTF files! Discussions about eBooks would always start with someone saying something like “I don’t read eBooks because I hate reading on my computer screen” and “I’ll never read eBooks because only people who can’t get a contract are published in that format.” OK, some people still believe those things, but most of us have gotten over those hurdles. Still, we’ve found new ones, or new ones have been shoved in place. Then there’s the biggest barrier of all — sometimes I just want to touch a blasted paper copy. Sometimes the paper copy is cheaper, or looks cooler, or is easier to read. Or sometimes there is no eBook edition!
Our central nervous systems have something called a blood-brain barrier. Sometimes I think mine also has a Kindle-brain barrier, and that some books will only enter by brain through a paper trail. Although I read the first two Hunger Games in eBook format, for some reason, I couldn’t get into the third one, Mockingjay. The final movie is coming up, and I really wanted to catch up. (How else will I know what parts they screwed up?( Then I started leafing through the large type edition of the third one in a bookstore, and the sucker pulled me in. I bought it and read it, in just a few days. Maybe it’s the distraction factor. When I’m reading something on a Kindle, there is always something else on that Kindle. (Oh, I’d better move that new book into the New Adult category. Wait, did I remember go get the new Joanna Wylde motorcycle club book I wanted? Hey, did I finish reading that ghost story?…) When I read Mockingjay in paper, there was only Mockingjay. Sucker that I am, I even bought matching large type editions of the first two and am now re-reading the first one. Maybe some books just need to be read a certain way. For years, I tried to read Lord Foul’s Bane. I finally managed it by taking a worn, used paperback to the beach and reading it, dog-earing the pages, getting sand in it, and dinging it up even more. I also can’t imagine reading certain old school romances on a Kindle because part of the fun of reading those books is slamming them on the floor now and then and walking away. That’s much more satisfying with an old mass market paperback. On the other hand, if I’m reading a print book and suddenly realize I want to read something else, I can’t just push a button on it and go to the next book. So it’s not a perfect world. It’s a hybrid world.
So keep those things in mind when you read about a recent article in the New York Times warning that eBook sales have slowed, and even fallen, and that print sales are on the rise. Are some readers giving up on eBooks? Are others not even giving the format a chance? Are customers reading in both formats? It’s just as likely that this article doesn’t have all the numbers, or isn’t interpreting them correctly. Maybe readers are going back to paper because they can buy the paper book at a discount on-line or even at the grocery store, and they’d rather do that than pay full price (or more) for the eBook. Maybe publishers are trying everything they can to corral readers back into print books. Maybe the article isn’t looking at all the numbers. Is it including all the people who pay, say, $2.99 or $3.99 for a new motorcycle club romance, or billionaire romance, yet would balk at paying $15 or more for the same title? It doesn’t look that way. As the article itself says, “It is also possible that a growing number of people are still buying and reading e-books, just not from traditional publishers. The declining e-book sales reported by publishers do not account for the millions of readers who have migrated to cheap and plentiful self-published e-books, which often cost less than a dollar.” (OK, we all know that $2.99 and $3.99 are the more common price points now, but articles on eBooks often lag behind the times.) AAR’s readers also had fun with this topic on our boards. Earlier this summer, as mentioned at AAR, eBook subscription service Scribd tried to control costs by cutting back on romance titles. Scribd’s rival, Oyster, announced in September that they were shutting down. Some experts see those issues as a sign that the eBook market is in trouble. This proves that many of those experts don’t know much about eBooks. I’m sure I’m not the only reader who tried Scribd and gave up because I hated reading in their iPad app. Others gave up because they didn’t like the idea of borrowing titles and not owning them. But no, to the experts, the problems at Scribd and Oyster must mean that people are “giving up” on eBooks, rather than giving up on a format they don’t like.
Are people going back to paper books? Or like me, did they never leave to begin with? I love my ereaders, and have for years. They’re a great way to carry tons (literally) of books around at once. Also, just as digital music stores have made it easier for me to find that weird band the local music store doesn’t carry, eBooks offer me a way to get copies of books I can’t otherwise find. From classic romances I haven’t seen in stores for years, to long out-of-print classics such as Varney the Vampire, eBooks have helped me find new ways to spend my money. On the other hand, when I started seriously getting into music again, I realized that local record store is a great place to have. Why pay $9.99 for a download that might get lost in a hardware crash when I can buy the CD for less, with a better copy of the artwork, lyrics, and liner notes, and better sound? When a band I like arranged for a signing in a Baltimore record store, I bought their new album in CD so that they could sign the booklet even though I also bought the download. Now I have a signed copy, and some cool memories. Of a guitarist with very blue eyes. Ahem.
Even when they don’t have autograph sessions, bookstores are still just as tempting. As long as the print copy doesn’t look as if it was printed in microfiche (that reference surely ages me), I might consider buying it, depending on various factors: whether there is an eBook edition (can’t buy one if it doesn’t exist); the price of the eBook edition; whether I might want to lend it to someone who doesn’t have an ereader; how nice the print copy looks; my mood; my storage space; the binding of the print edition; and the alignment of the planets. And once again, what about prices? Even the local independent bookstore can lure me in with lots of great discounts. (I’m lookin’ at you, Greetings and Readings!)
Also, some publishers are being very clever (blast them!) and putting together print copies that look great or feel so wonderful that you might think “Well maybe just this once…” I pulled a new YA book, The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow, off the shelf at a local bookstore. I was thinking of getting the eBook edition, which is under eight dollars. Then I realized the red throne on the cover is done in some kind of soft velvet. Darn it, now I went the hardcover because it feels so nice. YA paranormal Diary of a Haunting has lots of full-page black and white illustrations that would look … blah… on my Nook or Kindle. Also, while I don’t mind taking my Kindle into the sauna at the YMCA, I draw the line at taking it into the bathtub. On the other hand, I don’t mind taking a cheap paper copy there. No, I’m not going to take a bath with my signed, numbered edition of a book. But that trade paperback edition will be very welcome. That print edition will also never run out of juice, won’t accidentally flip to the next chapter (unless it’s windy), and can be lent to someone else. Also, I can buy paper copies at anywhere from the comfy Barnes & Noble where they make the best Frappuccinos and already know what I prefer, to nifty indie stores to used book stores. Not to mention this place I’ve heard about where you can borrow scads of books for free, even if they’re not available in eBook editions. Some place called a … library.
I’m not the only one who sometimes heads for the stacks. AAR’s Lee Brewer says, The first place I go to read books is the library, which fortunately has an extensive range of paper and eBooks. Most times the library will order the book in paper and eBook (and many times audio). My preference is always paper. If they only order eBooks, I’ll borrow that version. I do buy a LOT of eBooks but mostly UK chick lit/women’s fiction authors that are available through Amazon US. Otherwise, I stock up on UK books when I visit London or order from bookdepository.com.”
On the other hand, Maggie Boyd points out that some great books have come out only as eBooks lately — Gunpowder Alchemy by Jeannie Lin; Radiance by Grace Draven; Dark Horse Michelle Diener. Also, authors like Lisa Clark O’Neill, Melinda Leigh and Kendra Elliot publish in eBook editions. Maggie prefers paper, but she’s run out of space. On the other hand, if the eBook edition is more than $9.99, she’ll switch to paper. At least that way she can trade it in if it’s bad.
But paper hasn’t lured everyone back in. Mary Skelton prefers eBooks, for two main reasons — she can change the font size and reduce eyestrain, and she gets her books right away. A far cry from the olden days of eBooks, where orders that late on Friday night often weren’t fulfilled until Monday afternoon. Paper books might be here to stay, but eBooks have made leaps and bounds since 1999.
“If I never read another real book, I’d be perfectly happy,” says Dabney. “I read about five to ten books a week and I move between books as I read. My Kindle (and phone, iPad, and laptop) allow me to read whatever I want whenever I want. Plus I adore the dictionary/Wikipedia links in the Kindle program. My family also often reads together so having eBooks available to everyone at the same time is the bomb.”
Caz says, “I admit that when ebooks first came about, my reaction was along the lines of ‘great – but I will always prefer an actual book.’ Hah. How wrong I was.” She got her first Kindle for Christmas several years ago and hasn’t looked back since. The Kindle has coincided with her current reading needs, from finally having more time to read and getting more into reading romance. She also enjoyed being able to carry more than one book at a time, “and not having to leave books with half-naked people on the cover lying about.” She has been converted so thoroughly that for the last few years, the only “dead tree” books she bought were second-hand copies of books not available electronically, such as old Signet and Zebra regencies from the 80s and 90s. “
My house is crammed to the brim with dead-trees anyway, so the Kindle was a fantastic addition to the household in that it meant never having to put up another bookshelf! (Like we have space for one, anyway!)”
Heh. I know that feeling. I do appreciate not having to cram as many paperbacks onto those shelves now. Also, going somewhere is more fun because I don’t have to decide which books to take — I can take my Kindle and always have something to read, and if I want to take a print book, I can take that one special book I might happen to be reading. No more canvas bags filled with twenty paperbacks, none of which turned out to be the one I wanted to read.
–Anne M. Marble