The Big Switch

Reading & Writing

It’s small, grey and fugly, and it’s everywhere.

It only took two years for the Kindle to take over. When it was introduced, customers started switching to e-reading almost at once. And now they’re now buying more ebooks than all the UK hardcovers and paperbacks combined. According to figures released by Amazon, since the start of 2012, for every 100 hardback and paperback book sold on its site, customers downloaded 114 ebooks. Amazon says the figures include sales of printed books which don’t have Kindle editions, but exclude free ebooks.

The company also says its figures show that British Kindle users are buying four times as many books as they were prior to owning a Kindle, a trend it describes as a renaissance of reading. There’s a darker side to this. Amazon refuses to release audited figures for its digital book sales, something it does for printed books. And another worry for publishers; three of the top 2012 titles were published by Amazon’s own Kindle Direct Publishing.

People may be buying more books, but they’re also buying more rubbish. The percentage of bargain priced borderline-illiterate trash has jumped. But reading is a voracious, demanding habit, and the argument runs that many who start with entry-level books will develop more sophisticated tastes in time.

Then there are readers like myself, who buy Kindle versions and then repurchase physical copies if they like a book enough, to take their place in permanent home libraries.

But it seems Britain has embraced e-reading, and specifically the unlovely, clunky Kindle. In France it has barely scratched the reading market.

For publishers, the picture is a complex one; more readers, less sophistication, lower prices, and a monopolistic giant casting a shadow over the venerable houses. Intriguingly, hardback sales are up – especially books that offer the added value of being beautifully designed – the book is becoming a desirable gift again.

Like most fiction writers, I’m more concerned with creating the product rather than sorting out its delivery methods – but it’s something we’ll increasingly need to be aware of in future.

11 comments on “The Big Switch”

  1. Alison says:

    I can see what you’re saying, but from my point of view, the Kindle is a gem. I live in a tiny flat, so very little room for ‘proper’ books; I’m a commuter for my sins, so if I’m stuck in the middle of a doorstop of a book it’s a boon to be able to carry it on the Kindle rather than rupture myself carrying the book to and fro; and whilst I realise that it’s easy to be caught up in all the new self-published (mostly) rubbish that is available very cheaply, I do pride myself that I won’t go down that path – I remain discerning. I still go to the library and get my books and I still read the authors I enjoy with an occasional foray into ‘Amazon recommends’ (and I have found a few new authors through that method), but on the whole I remain true to my roots. I do understand your message, but I just felt that I had to stand up in my own small way to defend something that I find immensely useful and a godsend (there’s nothing worse than running out of something to read because you get through a book more quickly than you expected; at least with the Kindle you can just start on the next one). To be honest, I wouldn’t be without mine now.

  2. Ken says:

    There are some books I find impossible to read on ereaders, mainly reference texts. I’ve had to buy hard copies of most of my programming manuals as I enjoy scribbling notes in margins, bookmarking multiple chapters and throwing them at my laptop when code doesn’t work.

    What’s more serious is a growing threat of publisher censorship – Apple already ban books which contain references to Amazon, and given Steve Jobs’ legendary prudishness I’m surprised that 50 shades of grey is available on iTunes.

  3. Dan Terrell says:

    I bought a Kindle Fire for my wife last Christmas and after a few weeks she went back to hard and soft cover reading. I have a Kindle App on my HP and hardly ever remember to read what I’ve downloaded. Although it is good for obtaining obscure titles by Conan Doyle, Kipling, etc. I keep saying I want to get into the habit of reading on a Kindle since it seems the way to go with ephemeral titles.

  4. Mike Cane says:

    You have left out an important milestone that just occurred: Three New York Times bestsellers were “published” via Smashwords. The Big Six are doomed. But they already know that.

  5. Cat Eldridge says:

    Apple doesn’t ban works which have references to Amazon — it bans books that allow you to buy directly from Amazon.

    And guess what Amazon does? It bans links in the works it sells to any other online sales source.

    That’s how capitalism works.

  6. Helen Martin says:

    Something that changed my reading patterns was BookCrossing – that crazy action of “releasing” books into “the wild” for strangers to find. I released some in Britain and always take a few when we travel. I don’t borrow from the library as much and I read some quite silly books, but I’ve experienced some I wouldn’t have otherwise. I’m reading “We Have to Talk About Kevin” but I’ll admit I set it to one side after the events in Colorado. I thought we’d get rid of some unnecessary books but instead we now have piles on the floor.

  7. John says:

    “The Big Six are doomed. But they already know that.”

    I’m guessing this refers to the remaining publishing conglomerates. If self-publishing is going to replace utterly and completely legtimate publishing (like most self-publishing authors are trying to convince us), then we are *all* doomed. Writers and readers alike.

  8. Steve Milligan says:

    I did enjoy the series of blog posts that Charles Stross published a little while back on the publishing industry (http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/2010/04/common-misconceptions-about-pu-1.html). It certainly changed my attitude towards Amazon.

    Whilst I can see some benefits to e-books there is still something wonderfully tactile about curling up with a book.

    As for trying to educate the readers who are at the Dan Brown \ 50 Shades end of the market we could always look to crossover the classics. 50 Shades of Dorian Gray perhaps?

  9. Lulu says:

    My stroke survivor husband loves his iPad. He is just getting back to reading and the iPad works so well for him.

    I need pages. Bindings. Typefaces. The smell and feel of a book. Preferably a hardcover.

  10. Prisca says:

    I love my Sony ereader. I’ve read more books in the past 3 years than in the last 10 – and I was an avid reader then. I don’t have the space for paper books anymore and love the convenience of being able to read a series of books one after the other in a collection and just grab new books for future reading as I come across them.

    Yes, there is a lot of dross out there, but I’ve discovered new authors I wouldn’t have read if they were paper books. I’m also re-reading all the old classics I read as a child. Just purchased the latest Bryant & May, but have a while to go as I’m only half way through the series. I couldn’t live without my ereader now.

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