Books

Soaring sales of kindle don't mean hardcover books are dead

Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos said it's astonishing that the online retailer is now selling more Kindle electronic books than hardcovers.
Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos said it's astonishing that the online retailer is now selling more Kindle electronic books than hardcovers.

Books are dead!

Amazon announced this week that it now sells more Kindle electronic books than hardcover books.

"Astonishing," founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos said, "when you consider that we've been selling hardcover books for 15 years and Kindle books for 33 months." He said it's "a tipping point" in our culture.

In the past three months, Amazon sold 143 e-books for every hardcover book. In just the past month, the company said, that number rose to 180. The e-book market is expected to hit $500 million this year.

But Amazon left out a couple of facts. E-books, according to the Association of American Publishers, make up only 1.3 percent of the $23.9 billion book market. Also, sales of hardcover books are up, too.

Books are dead?

Smart people are doing some serious thinking about this stuff.

1. "Paper is the most successful communications innovation of the last 2,000 years, the one that has lasted the longest and had the profoundest effect on civilization. One can easily make the case that without the technology that is paper, there would be no civilization."

That's William Powers, from a piece written at Harvard called Hamlet's BlackBerry that now is a just-released book. Go Google it.

2. "E-books are emerging from their incunabula state, although this transition is far from complete." (Incubula means infancy, from the Latin for "cradle" or "swaddling clothes.")

That's John W. Warren. It's from a paper from this year in The International Journal of the Book called "The Progression of Digital Publishing." Go Google it.

3. "The Amazon Kindle is demonic."

That's Nathan Schneider. It's from a post called "Don't Take Away My Memory Theater" on a blog called The Row Boat, www.therowboat.com. Google it.

Most digital books now aren't really digital books. So says Warren in "The Progression of Digital Publishing." They're pictures of paper books adapted for use on a digital device.

Truly digital books, and some, such as Inanimate Alice at www.inanimatealice.com, are books (experiences?) that were written (created?) to be read (consumed?) not between two covers but on a screen in a more interactive way.

At this point, the most digital of digital books are interesting, experimental hybrid books whose publishers have added hypertext links to words on a page. The links lead to things to watch. Things to listen to. Click.

But when is that book no longer a book?

At what point is the reader doing something other than reading?

How to explain the pull of print in the face of what's new?

Some people say they like books because of how they look and smell and feel. That they feel. That they're objects, tactile and tangible, stored in shelves that show a life of thought. A person's memory theater.

Even people who don't read get that. A Web site called Bookdecor.com specializes "in antique leather-bound books used for decorative purposes."

But there's another reason people still like paper. And not just older people. And not just because of nostalgia. With clicks and links, you get a portal to everything, all the time, while paper, Powers says, is "just this one thing," right now.

Paper focuses its user. It slows its user. Paper has boundaries.

"It imposes order on the vastness of the information universe," Powers writes. It's an antidote to information overload.

Reading on a screen, he says, is "search and destroy."

Reading on paper is "settle down."

One more thing to read now:

"In the real world nowadays, that is to say, in the world of video transmissions, cell phones, fax machines, computer networks, and in particular out in the humming digitalized precincts of avant-garde computer hackers, cyberpunks and hyperspace freaks, you will often hear it said that the print medium is a doomed and outdated technology."

That's Robert Coover, from a piece called "The End of Books."

Print, he concluded, is "dead as God." He wrote that in The New York Times.

In 1992.

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