This week marked the first official day of fall, with the autumn equinox falling (no pun intended…) on the 23rd. This is not to be confused with daylight savings time, which doesn’t happen until November 1st. Not saying that I confused the two…or perhaps I did…
The hottest topic this week (I mean, besides the infernally hot weather we’re still having in Florida! Ha!) is actually a topic that’s been burning for several years now. Whatever happened to the fall (sigh…puns abound) of print? Merely five to seven years ago media sources, librarians, publishers, and booksellers alike seemed convinced that the rise of e-reading spelled doom for the print publishing world. It is true that e-reader and e-book sales skyrocketed between 2008 and 2010, but somewhere in the last five years the prophecy failed to become a reality. Check out this piece in the New York Times for more details and stats on how print sales are thriving and e-book sales are dropping.
The Times article provides a few theories for why the dreaded e-book takeover isn’t happening. Of course, the article focuses on the retail market instead of the academic market, but I believe there are some similarities between the two. There was a level of novelty involved in the e-reading explosion. You still can’t walk into a Barnes & Noble without seeing the snazzy Nook kiosk displayed in front of all the print books. Nooks, Kindles, Kobos, and others that fell off the face of the earth were coveted holiday and birthday gifts. They represented a sort of literary status symbol, similar to owning one of the first iPods: “I’m literate but also tech-savvy!” In only a few short years, mobile devices and tablets with responsive reader technology began to squeeze out the need for a dedicated e-reader. Why lug around multiple tech-dingies when you can fit everything into one that’s only slightly larger than a Pop-Tart? Once the novelty wore off, many readers realized that their preference for e-reading was situational. I mentioned in my Hot Topics column of 8/28/15 that even I, book-smelling print maven I am, read articles on mobile devices. We now see people taking a hybrid approach to reading; they prefer print for some formats (novels, works that require deep reading, textbooks) and e-reading for others (articles, chapters, sections of longer works).
Another reason for the decline of e-book sales in recent years and the uptick in print sales centers around pricing. There used to be a vague guarantee that an e-book would hover around a $9.99 list price while print titles cost anywhere from $35 to $15, depending on binding. Anyone who has priced an e-book lately knows the cost is all over the place. In academia, we routinely run into situations where an e-book costs hundreds of dollars more than the print counterpart, and Amazon buyers are no longer guaranteed a lower e-book price.
Several other factors contribute to this shift, including improved print distribution models, predictive publishing, and the rise in e-book self-publishing, but the bottom line is that print is still queen and doesn’t look to be dethroned any time soon.
Tom is originally from Brooklyn N.Y but has spent his entire professional career in South Carolina, most recently as Head of Reference Services at the College of Charleston. As part of the Against the Grain and Charleston Conference team, he serves as the associate editor of the print ATG as well as the co-editor of the webpage. Tom’s conference duties include coordinating the Penthouse Suite interviews as well as the conference poster sessions.
He received his MLS from the University of Buffalo, SUNY and a second master’s in public administration from the College of Charleston and the Univ. of South Carolina. His wife Carol and he live in downtown Charleston and she is an artist and a tour guide offering historic walking tours of the city.