The Persistence of Printed Books

I guess not everybody shares in my enjoyment of the Kindle and the movement towards digital books. The New York Times reported that the sales of e-books has actually slipped in 2015 from the year prior, and that readers are consuming a combination of both print and digital books instead of moving completely to e-books.

There is some academic theory around the preference for physical books; mainly, in that they retain physical page numbers and locations for information during reading that’s useful for remembering information. It may be more a persuasive explanation for textbooks as opposed to causal reading, however, which was the focus of the data.

E-books are at best a mixed bag over printed books in terms of functionality and experience. Ben Thompson has a good list in of digital deficiencies in his analysis1, but for all the benefits in storage and backlighting and portability, e-books don’t have great analogs for activities like borrowing, freeform note-taking, or even subtle signaling via book covers2.

The other issue is price, specifically, the lack of price differentiation between the physical, hard copy and the digital free-to-transfer version. Even assuming that the versions are functionally identical, there’s a preference for owning the physical good, a perception of getting more value for the same amount of money spent.

Drawing an analog to video games and the transition of console gaming to digital sales, that industry has faced the same issue and has made the same strategic errors. Even as the PC gaming market has went completely digital a decade ago (and the mobile market has never known anything other than pure digital content), the console market is still stubbornly physical, and its largest retailer continues to enact policies that keep games from evolving into primarily digital goods. Game publishers don’t help, as they keep digital prices equal to or sometimes even greater than their physical copy brethren.

With books, not only are e-books not that much cheaper than their printed counterparts, but they require a device – phone, tablet, or dedicated e-reader – to peruse, and the best experiences are had with bigger screens. From a pure pricing standpoint, the small savings that may be realized by going digital would be offset by the cost of entry3. To be fair, Amazon has been driving down that cost quite aggressively, and I hope that they’ll soon cross that threshold of becoming an impulsive purchase4.

I’m reminded of the 10x better rule: people will only switch to a new product (or piece of technology) only if it’s 10 times better than what it’s trying to replace. Printed books will survive – for the time being – as e-books are nowhere close to being even twice as good of a product. That said, there are signs that instead of just replacing physical hard copies, the Kindle store is starting to create its own market of self-published indie literature, which ultimately makes the e-book a complement to the printed tome.

  1. Interestingly, he later questioned the conclusions drawn in light of additional data, which seems to suggest not necessarily a retraction of digital reading, but rather the beginnings of disintermediation of big book publishers.

  2. Fortunately, the Onion has a hilarious sketch on how e-books can fix this aspect.

  3. The original Kindle come out at $400, and the only thing it could do was read books!

  4. Impulsive, as in buying a candy bar at the grocery store, and not the gadget-equivalent of grabbing a new iPhone off the shelf.

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