Monday, May 23, 2011

E-books Take Center Stage

Recently, Amazon announced a milestone in the reading world: Since the beginning of 2011, e-books have outsold print books on the Amazon site. Yep, e-books are here to stay.

Here’s a timeline provided by Amazon.

July 1995: Amazon begins selling books

November 2007: Kindle and Kindle e-books introduced

July 2010: Kindle e-books outsell hardbacks

May 2011: Kindle e-books outsell hardbacks and paperbacks combined

In the press release, Amazon said that since April 2011, for every 100 hardcover or paperback copies, Amazon has sold 105 e-book copies. That doesn’t include free e-books, which include nearly every title of note published before 1923. From the beginning of 2011 until now, Amazon sold three times more e-books than during the same period last year.

I resisted joining the e-reader legions for a good while, but not because of the reasons I’ve most often heard from folks: “I like the feel, the heft, and the smell of books.” No, I resisted because I didn’t want to spend the money on a Kindle or other device, and because I could often find used copies of books for less than the Kindle version.

That’s not to say I didn’t read e-books. I had the free Kindle apps for my Mac and iPhone for a good while before I bought a Kindle device, and had read a few books on my computer or phone. But at the end of summer last year, I noticed a woman sitting across from me on an airliner. She had the new version of the Kindle, with the lower price of 139 bucks. She decided to take a nap, and handed over the Kindle so I could check it out. When I got home, I ordered one.

For me, it was a natural transition to e-readers. I travel a lot, for one thing. I like to have a half-dozen or so reference books with me all the time, and that just wasn’t practical with hardbacks or paperbacks when trying to get by with carry-ons. Also, although I’m no tech geek, my job requires me to work with electronic stuff, so I’m not technology-resistant, either.

Again, one thing that kept me from fully embracing e-books was the cost of the books. Sure, a New York Times bestseller priced at $9.99 beats the hardcover price by a bunch, but I’ve never been one to chase after the bestseller list, especially with fiction titles. It was common to find used hardcovers or paperbacks for less than the price of a e-book edition. But, in the year before I bought my Kindle, I noticed the emergence of “indie authors,” writers who essentially self-published through e-books. I’ve found some great books from indie authors priced at $2.99 and below. The notion that I could find used books cheaper than e-books held sway much less. Yep, you’ll find junk out there in the indie world, but I’ve also paid 24 bucks for a hardback and been disappointed.

E-books have been a boon to readers and authors. My friend, fellow sasquatch at large, and journalist turned novelist Steve Brewer has authored twenty books, some of them out of print. (Interesting guy: he’s written for a living since he was eighteen.) Having secured the rights to all of his published titles except one , he now has them available on Kindle and Smashwords (Smashwords covers most e-book formats besides Kindle). Because Steve has the rights to most of his titles, he prices them at $2.99 and below. (The one title for which he doesn't have the rights, Boost, is priced at $9.99 by the publisher in the Kindle version.)

Before e-books, authors such as Steve were at the mercy of publishers regarding older titles. If a publisher chose not to issue a reprint of a title, the author was out of luck. E-books have changed that: Mr. Brewer reports that his biggest selling e-book title is one of his older ones, End Run, first published in 2000, despite paperback and hardcover versions slowing "to a trickle" by 2011.

Steve Brewer serves as a good example of how e-books are good for readers and authors. You can buy End Run as an e-book for $2.99. As of today, paperback copies cost $14.00 on Amazon, and the hardcover will set you back $23.95. And get this: Steve tells me that he gets the same royalties per copy for an e-book priced at $2.99 as a hardcover priced at 24 bucks.

By the way, Steve has a new book coming out in June, Calabama. Steve was kind enough to let me read his nearly-final draft, and the novel is a dandy. It's set here in Shasta County, and concerns the travails of a transplant to the area who suddenly finds himself without a job, without a wife, and ensnared in the clutches of a local drug kingpin. Fun read.

So, are e-books all good and no bad? Well, no. For one thing, my first Kindle froze up. They’ve been reliable, but they’re not as reliable as paper. (Amazon was great; they overnighted a new one to me the next day, and paid for the shipping to return the broken one.) For another thing, e-books lend themselves to impulse purchase. I’m guessing there are 20 or 30 titles on my Kindle priced at $.99 to $2.99 that I may never read. I just had to have them because they were cheap. The cost of the device itself is still considerable: the cheapest Kindle is $120. Although some devices, including Kindle, allow lending, there are usually limits such as time constraints, and library lending for e-books seems to just now be getting off the ground.

If you love print books, you might fear that growth in e-book sales threaten the availability of paper books. So far, those fears seem unfounded. When Amazon announced that e-book sales had surpassed that of print books, it also announced that sales of paperbacks had increased in the same period. I think there is little danger that paper books will go the way of 8 track tapes and cassettes. More likely, the lasting legacy of e-readers and e-books will be that they led to more people connecting to a passion for reading. That’s especially good news for novelists, since in today’s United States, fewer men read novels than in decades past: only one out of four men read book-length fiction today.

I’ve owned a Kindle e-reader for less than a year, and it’s probably resulted in the doubling of my reading volume. Really, I suppose I’m pretty much the opposite of the I Like Paper Books set: I find the Kindle so convenient, and such a pleasure to use, that I resent having to go back to a “real” book. I’m with the E-book Nation to stay. I even bought an emergency radio that charges my Kindle with a hand crank. You know, in case of The Rapture, or total economic collapse. A guy can’t be too careful.


Mary Paddock said...

I do prefer books (can take 'em in the bath tub, to the lake, and camping without worrying), but . . . my husband bought me a Kindle back in March and I have to say that I love it far more than expected to. (I think he's tired of tripping over stacks of books). I am an avid reader, but now that school is out and it is so easy to find what I want, I am more so. I would not bother with e-books on my computer as it is not portable and the laptop is too heavy to recline with. And I don't have to wonder where I put which copy of which book. They're all in one place.

I also love the sheer number of free e-books, especially the classics. Since getting my kindle I've read three Mark Twain books I might never have bothered with otherwise, one by Jane Austin, Dracula, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and Letters of a Woman Homesteader. The only danger? I do NOT go shopping on Amazon unless I can spare at least $.99 as it is far too easy to forget I'm spending real money.

My fantasy? That I can find all my textbooks this fall on e-book. :)

Mary Paddock said...

Good grief, Hal. Sorry for leaving a novel in your comments section.

Hal Johnson said...

Aw heck, Mary, leave as many novels as you'd like. :-)
I'm more a shower guy than bath, but when I do recline in the tub, my son suggested putting the Kindle in a Ziplock bag. Works great for cooking or camping too.

Kelly said...

Once I finally got a Kindle I loved it. Still...there are a few things I prefer with real books. It's much easier to thumb back to something you've already read than to find it again on the Kindle. Also, I like the "% read" thing at the bottom of the page, but there's something satisfying about seeing the progression of my bookmark as I make my way through a book. (and I love and collect bookmarks)

Kelly said...

Oh...and the book I'm currently reading I bought in paperback because it was cheaper than the Kindle version. It's over 900 pages, heavy and bulky. Should have gotten the Kindle version!

Bob said...

e-books are here to stay, no doubt about it. I'm very slow to progress, so I'm probably still a few years away from having one. If I traveled more, I would probably be more likely. Also, I get most of my books from the library so don't want to pay for something I can get free.

Dean M. Cole said...

Great article Hal. The growth of the ebook market is exciting and still in its infancy. Europe is just starting to get onboard with them and worldwide they still constitute a small percentage of overall sales. The coming years look to be very exciting time for us indies.

Roland said...

I wonder how the kindle is for fitness and training books, or cookbooks with pictures.

Hal Johnson said...

Roland, I have a handful of fitness and cooking books on my Kindle, and it's a mixed bag. With cookbooks, especially, you might miss the nice color photos of the prepared recipes. And with other books with tables and charts, such as fitness books, you often have to "click" on the table to enlarge it enough to read. I have Lou Schuler's latest, "The New Rules of Lifting for Abs" on my Kindle, and some of the photos accompanying the exercise descriptions aren't in the same place as the hardcover version of the book. Still, I was happy enough with it that I gave away my hardcover of the latest NROL. I think the bottom line is that if you're mostly into reading text, you'll like the Kindle. But, if you want an expansive collection of e-cookbooks, and/or you want full-color magazines, you may be happier with something like the iPad. That said, you can always view stuff in color on your computer or smart phone if you want to go with the cheaper, smaller, lighter Kindle.

Roland said...

So, if you have the book on your kindle, you can also read it on your PC, and in color?

Hal Johnson said...

Roland, I checked out "Primal Blueprint Quick and Easy Meals" on my computer, and the color photographs are all there accompanying the recipes. Then I checked out "The New Rules of Lifting for Abs" on the computer. The tables came out fine on the computer screen, whereas on my Kindle, they're hard to read until I click on them to expand. My recommendation? If you're going have lots of fitness books and cookbooks, you might be happier with an iPad or another tablet. But, if you're going to read lots of text, folks report that the Kindle is easier on the eyes. One wild card out there is the Nook: B&N makes a color screen version, but I have no experience with it.

Dean said...

I mostly read graphic novels. Can you get them on a kindle?

I just hate the idea of a kindle. The paper, the smell, the typeface and the cover. Big or small, double-sided, sing-sided... all lost... Then again, maybe that's a good thing. The stuff that really should matter is the words.

What is a "sasquatch at large"?

bettingonyourfuture said...

I just came back from vacation and it was perfect reading my e book next to the pool. E books cannot take the full place of printed books yet. I am thinking of if a University student wants to highlight a word, or make notes in their book during a lecture. That type of ebook is soon to arrive I bet.