Just a couple years ago the Borders bookstore chain accounted for around one in six trade books sold in the United States. I’m not including textbooks, professional books or religious books here, just the fiction and nonfiction you would expect to find in a bookstore, supermarket or other retailer with bestselling books. Borders is completely gone now, yet watching the sales numbers for Barnes&Noble and Amazon and listening to book retailer buzz at large, it’s beginning to look like a double digit percentage of the book market from the Harry Potter era is simply gone.
If eBook sales were picking up the slack, I wouldn’t bother writing about it since everybody now expects eBooks to replace paper books as the prime distribution method for books in the near future. But eBook sales, as fast as they are growing, aren’t making up for the steep decline in print sales. Who would have believe that in the quarter since Borders shut its doors, book sales at Barnes and Noble bookstores have actually dropped a little?
The title of this post should make it clear that I think those book sales have gone up in electronic smoke. The cold truth is that most trade book reading is recreational, a form of entertainment. Kindle started the fire by proving that reading is an immersive experience of engaging with text. Most readers just didn’t give a damn about book design, font selection, layout, the sensual experience of handling and acquiring paper books that so many pundits were babbling about a few years ago. Readers are in it for the entertainment value and don’t really care how they get it as long as it doesn’t cause eyestrain.
Now, as it turns out, a chunk of the book reading public were readers of convenience rather than vocation. It wasn’t the core properties of a book, a serial presentation of ideas or scenes with a beginning, a middle and an end that made them readers. It was the convenience of having on-demand entertainment that could be taken into the bathroom or enjoyed on a train or in a bed that drove many people to keep reading. Then along came iPad and blew a hole in the time previously devoted to reading books.
Part of the time that would have been spent reading books is now being spent with FaceBook, Twitter and other social media consumption. The balance has shifted to consuming professional video content, films and TV programs. I probably watched a movie a day during the free month of Prime membership that came with my Kindle Fire. I mainly caught up on foreign films, most of which weren’t very good, and I probably pulled the plug on around one in two movies after I started watching. But the point is, I did it sitting in the same chair where I do most of my reading, and in truth, it didn’t feel all that different.
I’m not a candidate for giving up on reading in favor of video, I quit watching TV years ago and the compulsive movie watching was more about getting something of my Kindle Fire while the getting was good, and free. But I wouldn’t be surprised if ten years from now, fiction sales by unit (print and electronic) have fallen by half over their peak. It may be that the universal adoption of much lower pricing for trade eBooks would slow the process, but I wouldn’t bet on it.
The iPad more like a next generation phone that’s bad for making voice calls than an enhanced eBook reader or a stripped down computer. It’s the connection aspect that sells iPads, the quick interface to friends, family and even work, with the added advantage that the iPad version of touch typing gives people an excuse to keep it short. A device that maximizes the instant gratification value that can be derived from your full range of relationships, from the most casual to the most intimate, while offering a storefront for all the professionally produced entertainment you can consume when things get slow.
The iPad isn’t a device at all, it’s a metaphor for modern society.