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.