Return to Paper?

I was recently exposed to an article on declining eBook sales. I skimmed through the article and kicked off a discussion with my fellow authors which I’m sure will invite comment on here <Grin> but, I feel compelled to both support and debunk this article.

Yes, I believe people are returning to paper for many reasons, not the least of which has to do with theft. I have said it many times in many places so I will say it again here. Until ebook readers cost less than a single trip to Starbucks, they won’t replace paper. Dedicated ebook readers are also a dying market. While I consider it a crime against humanity to shop at Walmart, they are currently selling Nextbook Flexx 2-in-1 tablets for around $100.

While I hate Windows with a passion the English language fails to capture some versions come with some kind of Andriod operating system and eventually most Linux distributions will solve their boot problem when a 64-bit computer contains a 32-bit UEFI. Many parents are already buying these computers for their kids to take to school. Besides being low cost they are pretty durable. A quad-core with 32GB of storage is more than enough to write a term paper and do homework on. You can read ebooks AND surf the Web for things your parents don’t want you to know about. It is quite difficult to justify a single purpose device dinging the credit card with a similar or higher price.

Yes, some people oooh and aaaah over “paper white” reading screens, but IPS monitor technology has dramatically shrunk that reading gap. Most of the newer tablets have utilized various technologies to get around the “reading in bright sunlight” problem. After all, the entire point of a tablet is to be able to take it everywhere. Many field service engineers take theirs on job sites. While battery tech hasn’t really gotten better, power consumption has. I have a couple of laptops which can give me 8 hours or more away from a plug.

So, technology is quickly ensuring your current ebook reader will be gathering dust on a shelf next to your 10 inch laser disk movie player, but that isn’t the real reason people have been moving back to paper. That reason is 2-fold: security and sharing.

Culturally humans have a long history in sharing books. Every country’s library system is based on it. Most of you probably know someone who typically gives books they have just finished reading to others. I can remember family members who used to show up at family reunions both to see everyone and to exchange books they had read. Doing that with an ereader gets tricky. In some/many cases it is illegal due to the licensing of the content. On many devices the process is also not straight forward enough for the non-techy to accomplish.

Security is a thornier issue. Many people won’t even admit security is one of their concerns. It is a subconscious thing we all do without realizing. Consider the following:

You walk into an eating establishment and pass by a table or the counter with a newspaper on it. Obviously it is not for sale, just laying there where someone must have eaten earlier. Do you even think twice about snagging a section you like to read and taking it to your seat? No. Culturally when we are finished reading a newspaper we are finished with it. If we are in a public place we leave it sitting for someone else to look at. We may have bought it, but we do not consider it a possession. Tomorrow there will be another.

You head out to a pool or beach. Next to where you land like a whale is a magazine turned to an interesting article. There is no one around so you decide to give the article a quick read. Yes, I know none of you will admit to having done this, but I’ve been to enough complex pools to have seen it many times. If the person returns half the time they say nothing. The other half they say something like “excuse me, I believe that is mine.” Which usually gets the reply “I’m sorry, I caught the title of this article and it looked intriguing.” 9 times out of 10 they enter into a discussion about the article and life in general. Why? Because it was a magazine. They may have spent $4.50 for it at the news stand, but they don’t consider it a possession.

Replay each of these scenes in your mind but replace the newspaper and magazine with an ebook reader, laptop, tablet etc. Unless you have designs on being a career petty thief, it isn’t going to happen. In your mind you know that is a possession and you will have committed a crime. If you replace the newspaper and magazine with a $5 paperback or a $30 hard cover odds are you won’t touch it for a different reason, not a quick read. The thought of crime doesn’t enter into it. The object is going to require far more of a commitment than you are willing to make.

Now it is time for a bit of debunking. Yes, printed book sales are going up. Yes, the token few readers left in the world prefer them. That is where the truth tends to end though. The article is guilty of some Al Gore type data filtering. Ebook sales are plummeting and you have Amazon to thank for it. One, because they con authors into “free download scams” and two, because there is no requirement for professional editing their site is flooded with unreadable unedited trash.

My term for the typical amazon customer is “free hoarder.” Even if they will never read or comment on it, if it is free they seem to pull it down. Eventually they hit capacity and have to nuke free stuff they never looked at to make room for more free stuff they will never look at.

Another reason ebook sales are down has to do with “free vendors.” I recently received an email from with an offer of 1000 eBooks on a thumb drive. The name of the site should say it all. The “service” you are paying for is for them to load a thumb drive with this free content and send it to you. I didn’t bother to look at what they were charging. I have seen similar offers from other “free” ebook sites. Since these books are free there are no sales recorded or reported to the various industry tracking places. Even if they were, how could you honestly determine which, if any, of the 1000 titles a person actually read if they don’t bother to post a review anywhere?

There is a cultural mindset which started with television and radio. If you grew up before cable and satellite you could turn on a radio or television to watch something. Yes, you were bombarded with commercials but you didn’t have to pay for it. The same mindset has migrated to the Internet but the business model has changed. In the old days companies paid artists and others to create content then sold or licensed it to television and radio. In the old days, the artist got paid. Screwed over many times, but paid something. By and large the Internet doesn’t pay for content but companies still sell advertising.

Has Linked-In ever paid you for posting? FaceBook? You-tube is reported to have some kind of ad revenue sharing model, but, how many of you have actually put content on there AND gotten paid? Have you ever posted or commented on a site which has advertising and gotten paid? You produced content. Most likely content others will search and read. Did you get paid for it?

Ebook sales are declining not because of technology hurdles, but, because content producers tend to not get paid. Content producers tend to fall into two groups.

  1. those which have wised up and either no longer create electronic content or no longer put said content in places where it can be consumed without them getting paid.
  2. those who continually put free content out hoping to “be discovered” who are less and less capable of covering the costs to eat and live indoors.

When it comes to a physical book, even if you read it at the library, someone got paid. Subconsciously you know this and feel better about reading that book than the one you got as a “free download.” At some point ethics exists in most of us. That’s why print sales are increasing. People have begun to realize THEY are the problem, not “the other guy.”

One thought on “Return to Paper?

  1. Interesting perspective, Roland, and as you guessed, I’m still thinking about it. Great article by the way. I just don’t know how you do it every time.

    I’m aware of all the Chicken Littles running about claiming the sky is falling, that the demise of the eBook reader is not far behind. They point to paper, and say I told you so. Paper is king. No, not quite. People are king. The eBook reader will last, but will change.

    As you point out, reading will be conducted in a variety of innovative ways giving way to any number of iterations. Paper however is not doomed, but simply consigned to another form, in a different market, for a different purpose, or targeted by a different audience.

    The microwave did not replace the cooking stove, and the television didn’t replace the radio. And robots do not write great article like yours.

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