Digital Versus Print

I made the switch to reading books in digital form in 2008, when I bought a Sony reader. I had experimented with reading books in digital form for many years before that, but found reading on devices like my various Palm and other PDAs a bit awkward and anyway there were not many books available that I wanted to read. How things have changed!

I now read fiction pretty much exclusively as ebooks. The Sony has been discarded (too many problems, mostly to do with their software) and an iPad is now my preferred reading device, with an iPod Touch used for quick reads in checkout lines and waiting rooms.

I still buy printed books, but only nonfiction works which I know I will be using as references for a while. Nonfiction that I expect to read once, I buy as an ebook.

I used to be attracted to book stores like a kid is attracted to a candy store. These days, I very rarely go to any book store. My local “big box” book store carries far fewer titles than it once did, in a much narrower range — it now seems to focus on a mix of best-sellers and “celebrity” titles which hold no interest for me. Each time I do visit, it seems more floor space has been given to gifts, candy, picture frames, and other things I can find in dozens of other stores in the local mall.

When I discover an author I enjoy, I tend to read all his or her books. A few years ago, I could pretty much rely on my local book store having a decent selection of any one author’s recent work. Today, the only authors given that representation tend to be the ones I regard as rubbish writers: Patterson, Clancy, and others of their ilk who work with ghost writers to churn out a new title every few months. Online, I can almost always find fairly complete backlists of an author’s work in ebook format.

I find I am buying and reading a lot more ebooks than I ever did print. I don’t generally buy my ebooks from web stores which also sell print books; I prefer the less cluttered shopping experience of dealing with a web store where only ebooks are sold, or like Amazon allows me to focus on ebooks only.

Impact on Publishing

I don’t think I am alone in my changed preferences. Everyone I know who has acquired an ereading device tells me their experience is, they are buying and reading more ebooks and are buying few if any printed books.

This does not mean the impending end of print! Those of us who have bought ereading devices are a minority. Yes, we probably read more than the average person; we did that when we were buying print and do more of it now that ebooks are so convenient to buy. But surveys indicate that a large part of the population has little interest in ebook reading devices, or in reading a book on a portable device.

Ebooks are not killing book stores. Online shopping is certainly hurting the big box book store chains. And the chains are certainly hurting themselves: their inventory selections are deterioriating and for the most part their staff know as much about the books they sell as my local supermarket staff know about the laundry detergent they sell.

Fiction is hurting more than nonfiction. Few current ereaders handle well the more complicated formatting requirements of nonfiction (tables, charts, checklists, and similar). Nonfiction will I think take longer to shift in bulk to ebook formats, and consumers will be slower to change, too.

In a recent Nielsen BookScan study, 80 percent of those surveyed said they would never consider purchasing a dedicated ebook reading device. That does not exclude them buying tablet computers like the iPad, or smartphones with ebook reading software, but it does suggest that a large percentage of the population will continue to buy printed books for a good few years to come.

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