Can eBooks and Print Coexist?

by Tosh McIntosh

(Originally published 11/28/12)

Unless you’ve been living off the planet for the past five years, you are more than likely aware of the ongoing turmoil in the publishing industry which began when Amazon introduced the Kindle on November 19, 2007. Pundits on both sides of the chasm between traditional  (legacy) and independent (indie) publishing make frequent predictions as to what the future holds in store . . . as in bookstore, and of course, libraries, neither of which you need to read an eBook.

I’ve never quite understood the oft-expressed addiction to the aroma of paper and ink as justification for the fear that the eBook revolution will mean the end of the printed book and the physical structures that house them. It’s a doom-and-gloom attitude that in my opinion needs to shake hands with reality. Let me address a few facts for your consideration.

Legacy publishing operates on a business model of scarcity built around the new release hardcover book. Publishers pay for access to limited shelf space in a brick-and-mortar bookstore and lose that primo status as soon as sales no longer support the book’s right to remain in a high visibility location. Then it’s back into the stacks to make room for the next hot release.

The phenomenon in relation to the buyer is no different than when shopping online with a keyword search. Most of us never get beyond the first page of links. Unless you walk into a bookstore to find a particular book, your attention is hijacked by the carousels and tables within a few feet of the entrance. Books placed front-cover out under a sign that says something like NEW ARRIVALS are hard to ignore.

A hardcover book no longer worthy of top billing quickly ends up on the bargain tables at Barnes & Noble and the big-box discount stores, selling for less than a new-release paperback. Over 40% of all books published end up as these “remainders,” and a large percentage of them meet their demise in the jaws of a pulping machine to be reborn as recycled paper.

Add to that this sobering statistic: only one in five books published earns out the author’s advance. How legacy publishing can be proud of their inability to discern what the public really wants to read never ceases to amaze me.

Whether you own an e-reading device, or are thinking about it, or are determined never to even touch one, it’s hard to avoid the reality that eBooks exist in an environment of infinite abundance. There’s no limit to virtual shelf space, no requirement to print thousands of physical books and ship them and deal with the remainders because there aren’t any.

So, these fact should be the harbinger of death to print books, right?

Well . . . probably not. I prefer author Barry Eisler’s analogy prediction. Candle makers used to sell light. Now, they sell candlelight. The industry didn’t collapse into the basement of history with the proliferation of electricity. It morphed into a niche role.

Print books will continue to lose market share because no economic forces exist to reverse the trend. The decrease, however, will slow and eventually reach a sustainable balance with eBooks. The resulting industry will serve the needs of those who never read a digital book, those who never read anything but, and those whose reading preference is situational.

It’s one thing to express an opinion based on less-than-scientific research, which I’m doing here and have previously in a post on my personal site titled, “Fiction After 50 and Ebooks,” and another thing entirely to provide specific statistical data. Surprisingly enough, someone actually read that post and sent me an email suggesting that I take a look at research that supports a prediction of coexistence.

Initially, I was a little dubious. I tend to be cautious about how ingenious the hackers can be, but the email didn’t appear to be spam or contain anything insidiously destructive to my website. All I had to do to check it out was reply to the email and receive a link to an info-graphic. I did that and found what appears to be well-documented research on habits of the reading public.

Here are two relevant infographics from 2011-2012 related to this topic:


Can eBooks and Print Coexist? — 1 Comment

  1. After suffering a stroke in July of 2011, I lost the ability to hold a book and turn the page. This limits my reading to books that I can display on my computer screen. Fortunately, I downloaded a Kindle Reader app for my laptop and started reading books electronically.
    I belong to a nonfiction readers club and I find lugging a Kindle reader or a laptop to meetings a little inconvenient, but better than the alternative.
    Another big plus for e-books is the convenience of keeping a large library at my finger tips.

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