Edit: Turns out something smellier than I expected is going on with the NYT and ebooks. From the Stratechery piece:

To my regret, and in a rich bit of irony, I failed to research disconfirming evidence for the New York Times’ conclusion that ebook sales were indeed dropping.

Fortunately, the Author Earnings blog took no such shortcuts and came to some different conclusions. I strongly suggest reading the whole thing, but here are some pertinent excerpts...

And now, back to what I originally wrote...

Interesting but overly simple NYT article from @Gruber on "The Plot Twist: E-Book Sales Slip, and Print Is Far From Dead". Read the article (I'm not going to summarize past the title), and let me try to paint a slightly different picture using the same content:

As readers migrated to new digital devices, e-book sales soared, up 1,260 percent between 2008 and 2010, alarming booksellers that watched consumers use their stores to find titles they would later buy online.
Then in 2011, the industry's fears were realized when Borders declared bankruptcy.
E-book subscription services, modeled on companies like Netflix and Pandora, have struggled to convert book lovers into digital binge readers, and some have shut down. Sales of dedicated e-reading devices have plunged as consumers migrated to tablets and smartphones.

Let's recombine those statements with a few others...

The American Booksellers Association counted 1,712 member stores in 2,227 locations in 2015, up from 1,410 in 1,660 locations five years ago.

Wonder what happened when Borders closed? Hrm... Let's add Ben Thompson's slightly ecologically misapplied Internet jungle metaphor, where you've got the apex predators getting bigger (here, publishing houses), the niche competitors growing in their specialized niches, and nothing in between. That is, guess where underserved book buyers buy books?

Higher e-book prices may also be driving readers back to paper.

As publishers renegotiated new terms with Amazon in the past year and demanded the ability to set their own e-book prices, many have started charging more. With little difference in price between a $13 e-book and a paperback, some consumers may be opting for the print version.

Let's also remember...

  • Tablet sales are taking.
  • Apple's ebook suit was settled, and the only significant downward pressure on price is also gone.
  • The bookshelf building stage of ebook ownership is over, in large part because of raised ebook prices. Your whales have reached critical mass, and are buying only just over the speed at which they're reading.

Here's an alternative take to the latent "print is making a comeback" argument in the article (and @Gruber):

The ebook's initial position as a bargain print substitute pushed large merchants, unable to pivot and compete on convenience and price, off of their perches.

Years later, however, growth has stabilized for both print and pixels because...

  1. Tablet sales have dropped, making tablet ownership flatten
  2. eBook prices have increased as competitive pricing in ebooks has disminished
  3. eBook readers have filled their virtual bookshelves, and are less impulsive about buying
Makes more sense to me.

And a quick thought on @Gruber's hipster comment:

I read both, but for any book I truly care about, I prefer to get it in print.

Combine that with this statement from the NYT article:

And according to some surveys, young readers who are digital natives still prefer reading on paper.

I used to think that too, and want to keep thinking it, but I don't any more.

What our young, hipster readers are saying is that they prefer the experience one gets from reading a book successfully offline. Think of all the things that have to happen for you to read a printed book...

  1. You have to have it with you.
  2. You need good lighting.
  3. You have to have time to read it.
  4. It has to be good enough for you to finish.

Below, I'm going to argue that we no longer read paperbacks in the grocery line, or while waiting for a friend, or over lunch, like we used to. If we stipulate that, one thing becomes clear:

Reading a paper book is now about having time to dedicate to reading. Space, light, comfort. So of course we'd rather have a book in print, because we recall a more pleasurable experience. It's not the book that's great so much as what reading a printed book "requires".

I used to carry around a book everywhere in the 80s and 90s. It was, looking back, my smartphone, so to speak. It was the small, portable device that best allowed you to use up dead time by sneaking in a few moments of escapist pleasure. I used to read a book in the Dune series every day or two until I caught up with Frank, just before he died. Nothing wrong with that, within reason.

But now the alternative is too handy. I have my phone with my all the time. I no longer carry a paperback. It's too easy to have something to read on the phone.

My suspicion is that most read (if they are reading, and not Clash of Clanning, which is also fine, within reason!) more web stories, Instapapered or otherwise, RSS, and email on their phone to help fill up that "catch as catch can" time. Personally, I tend to be reading at least one paper book and one ebook all the time in large part to be ready for down time. I love to have the space to read a printed book. I love to mark portions that are interesting to pull back out later. But when I'm waiting on friends or find myself stuck in a line, it's hard to grab a book beside my chair at home. It's really easy to yank out an iPod or smartphone.

Most importantly, I have both bookshelves full with books so I don't run out of things to read if I have time to relax or have unexpected time to kill. And that's largely why my ebook purchasing is flat. I have my reservoir. I'm less likely to bite on today's deal.

I might prefer have time to sit in a chair on the porch with a drink when there's great light and weather to read, but just like my camera, the best book to read is always the book I have with me.

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