Ebooks outselling hard covers? Where's the news?

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Jul 22, 2010 GMT
Bruce Byfield


Just by choosing which stories to cover, journalists and editors decide what is news and what is not. Since you can never cover everything, that is inevitable, and the alternative to being selective is to despair and cover nothing at all. But I despise news that is manufactured out of nothing or next to nothing. This week, for example, Amazon announced that it is selling an average of 143 ebooks for its Kindle reader for every 100 hardcovers – and, suddenly, everyone on the Internet is pontificating about the success of ebooks and anticipating the death of paper books.


Why is this non-news? Not because, as some allege, the figures are heavily qualified and do not accurately represent the state of the book publishing industry. So far as I can tell, they are accurate enough to serve as at least a general indicator. Rather, this tidbit is non-news for the same reason that a headline “Dog Bites Man” is not news, while “Man Bites Dog” is. In other words, what is routine is not news, but what is unusual is.


Amazon, if I may state the obvious, is in the business of selling books online. Sending ebooks to customers fits with an online business with an aptness that shipping physical books does not. Sending ebooks is quicker, and can eliminate whole departments, or at least reduce their size. Under these conditions, you hardly need to be a marketing genius to predict that Amazon has been doing all it can to promote its ebook business. The company would need an internal incompetence of epic proportions not to reach this point sooner or later.


Moreover, look at the prices. At my local book store, hardcovers sell for $30-40. In the United States, they are a few dollars cheaper, because Canadian prices are always higher to cover the cost of shipping across the border. By contrast, ebooks range from $2-20, with newer titles often hovering between $10-15. Granted, the selection of ebooks might be slightly less, but I would be surprised if it were greatly so, since, from what I hear, writers these days are routinely negotiating for paper and online rights together. But the point is, at less than half the price, how could ebooks not outsell hardcovers sooner or later?


Just as importantly, hard covers are not the core of the book industry, and haven’t been for decades. Instead, hard cover releases are like the theatrical releases of movies, only more so. Hard cover releases carry more prestige than trade or paperback sales, just as theatrical releases carry more prestige than DVD releases. Some members of the audience, too, may prefer the larger print in hard covers, just as many movie goers prefer the big screen. However, the real money in books is in paperback release. Just as a movie may not turn a profit until its DVD release, so most hardcovers have only modest sales, and publishers make most of their money in paperbacks. And what this means is that boasting of outselling hardcovers is shooting at a very easy target.


I know why, of course, people are taking this new and running with it. Most of the time, they are focusing on the technology, and not on the industry. What interests them is the fact that ebook readers are becoming popular. The fact that ebooks have been launched before with tepid results makes Amazon’s claim even more interesting than it would otherwise be.


But this perspective (which, considering that I write for a living, you might expect would be mine) is too restricted. Not only does it ignore the realities of the publishing industry, in which hard covers are the least important major format, but it ignores the basic structure of the book.


A book is not the pages and covers of the processed wood pulp on which the words are printed. A book is a linguistic and cultural construct that does not change with the medium on which you read it. That medium may be easier or more difficult to use than other medium, but such considerations do not alter the book itself. Pride and Prejudice or The Stand are still Pride and Prejudice and The Stand, regardless of whether they are read on paper or on a screen. Readers still engage with the characters and plots – or not – regardless of how they are reading, and no technology is going to change that.


Some day (possibly very soon), ebooks will almost certainly start outselling paperbacks – and that will be unusual enough to be truly news. But even that moment will be less important than everyone will claim. The medium may change, but the words and the structure won’t, not in any significant way. You may see shorter paragraphs, for instance, but what constitutes skillful characterization, plotting, or expression will remain unchanged.


Meanwhile, this week’s news falls far short of such a milestone. By rehashing it endlessly, journalists and bloggers are not delivering news so much as giving Amazon and its ebook line free publicity over a non-event. I wouldn’t be making my own contribution here to Amazon’s marketing, except that the story is in serious need of some perspective.


  • A point everyone missed

    One point everyone seems to have overlooked is that Bezios, in the same press announcement, acknowledged that HARDCOVER SALES ARE ALSO UP, which would seem to indicate Amazon's ebook numbers are NOT coming from cannabalized hardcover sales. All those chicken littles crying about the literary sky falling are wide of the mark.

    Amazon's press release is trying to sneak an apples-to-oranges comparison past us -- a bit like Toyota bragging that it sells more cars than Ford does SUVs. If Amazon's ebook sales are not coming at the expense of hardcovers, then whither comest they?

    One thing Amazon has does is build mechanisms allowing authors to self-publish. As a result, wanna-be authors are flocking to Amazon by the thousands. These self-pubs are, of course, available in ebook format only., leaving us to ponder whether Amazon's ebook sales are being largely driven by the flood of self-pubs Since it goes without saying that an ebook will outsell hardcovers in those cases where it's not available in hardcover, the real significant question becomes whether ebook sales are outpacing hardcovers specifically in those cases where the book is available in *both* formats. But Amazon, perhaps tellingly, isn't releasing those numbers.

    There really is so much Amazon didn't say in its press release, that we really know almost nothing more than we did before.
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