Who is buying ebooks? And who is reading them?

By some metrics, the ebook wave has crested.

While they have not yet been around long enough to merit a Gibbon-esque Rise and Fall, some web authors offer only moderately partisan summaries of the state of the book, claiming that ebook sales and readership have reached their peak, and that the trend indicates that there will always be more traditional books than ebooks.Of course, statistics, like voting districts, are most often cultivated ways to describe a result, rather than a raw measure of factual information.

First, some general comments on the reasons behind a general flattening in e-book sales. First, ebook prices have risen, perhaps driving readers back to used print copies or libraries. As the writer of that article (on the site called dear author.com) notes, the reduced price of ebooks ought to follow not only from lower overhead costs, but also due to the limited set of rights one acquires when purchings an ebook: “If a publisher wants me to pay a price nearly commensurate with a hardcover copy from Target or other big box chain, I expect the same rights to come with the digital copy, including, the right to lend or borrow, the right to re-sell, and the right to own my copy outright without limitations like DRM.”

The comments (118 — the article was posted on 10 March) to the above-linked article reveal that perhaps the reading public has settled on a fair price for an ebook — six or seven dollars — and that many readers refuse to budge. For ebook sellers, this presents a problem: elevate prices and lose sales, thus perhaps stalling the industry, or accept the what the market will bear and become stuck on a pricing structure difficult to move, even with “special features.”

Dan Cohen (“Executive Director of the Digital Public Library of America”) in “What’s the matter with Ebooks?” writes that after an initial surge on the release of the Kindle and iPad, “ebook adoption has plateaued at about a third of the overall book market, and this stall has lasted for over a year now.”

New statistics from Nielsen Books & Consumer show that ebooks were outsold by both hardcovers AND paperbacks in the first half of 2014.

According to the survey, ebook sales made up 23% of unit sales for the first six months of this year, while hardcover’s accounted for 25% and paperbacks 42% of sales. [link]

 Cohen frames these findings in light of the fact that such surveys are usually comparing books “from major publishers in relation to the sales of print books from those same publishers“. Expanding the field to include medium, small, indie, and self-publishers changes things a bit. One must consider books that are only published in one format or the other. It is obvious that the ease of publishing an ebook is going to lead to more and more of them appearing.

Gauges of ebook sales must, I think, cut out some of the chafe. A market is always market-driven, and thus the big fish are going to weigh more heavily in the scales that determine whether ebooks are surpassing traditional books in the marketplace. On the other hand, as the small fish multiply, the big publishers will have to take note of the fact that people are choosing to read on electronic devices (if only because the small fish don’t swim in the print pool… as ’twere).

One could imagine a market trend similar to the one that is transforming entertainment and news: web-based content, produced far from the highly developed production world of television and cable, has forced that advertisers to rethink how they disperse their money. Similarly, social media transformed the way people consume every kind of web-based content, effecting a similar change in economic perspective.

Examining a population that is both presumed to favor electronic devices, and also one that might presage future trends, a Publishing Technology survey of “1,000 consumers across the U.S., aged between 18 and 34”

found that in the last year, nearly twice as many respondents had read a print book (79 percent), than an ebook on any device – the closest being a tablet (46 percent).

One question seems to corroborate the general flattening out of the ebook market:


Analysis of the survey reveals some of the psychological roots in resistance to ebooks:

This rising cohort of book-buyers relies on peers for suggestions of what to read, often prefers cheaper, smaller bites that can be shared freely, and revels in the luxury of being able to read whenever and wherever it likes – regardless of format or platform.

Another psychological (or motivation) limit thus far on runaway ebook sales is a 2012 study showing, among other things, the reasons why some parents do not co-read e-books with their children (mean age of child, around four years old):

Screen Shot 2015-04-14 at 3.06.31 PM

The same study reveals that, generally, parents (and children) don’t prefer co-reading ebooks:

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Ethical questions raised by innovation, education, and cronuts

Some people are technophobes: they have an immediate fear, or distrust of technology. Others are technophiles, and idealize technology, either from a lust for the new and innovative, or in the belief that technology will solve previously intractable problems. Sometimes technology does that: one sees such successes in medicine, for instance. In other instances, technology does not so much solve a problem as elevate a previously workable (or nonexistent) obstacle to a problem, and then offer a solution to it. This is a process of pre-justification. For instance, while it might not have been a problem for many people only to have the range of radio stations to listen to that are available via radio transmission, once the technology to provide satellite radio began to develop, the develops of it (and its merchants) insisted that limited radio (or unclear signals) were problems, and satellite radio was here to solve them!

Innovation, then, includes both an actual moving from an inferior to a superior position, and also a re-appraisal of the situation itself, looking for small difficulties to expand. Another way to put this is that one state is not replaced utterly by another, but rather than the second state is different, and only related to the first at certain points. Innovation exists when those points are many.

The original cronut, from dominiqueansel.com

The original cronut, from dominiqueansel.com

It is, perhaps, needless to say that economies also work this way. As more people want to generate wealth for themselves, there is constant pressure to carve out new economic generators where no one had previously seen them.

For instance: cronuts. In those early, barren days (a couple of years ago), we only had donuts and croissants. Oh the suffering we lived with in those dark days! Then NY’s Dominique Ansel Bakery combined these and a new pastry (and to new way to make money) appeared.

(As an aside and further fractal-life crenellation of the fecundity of innovation, here in Atlanta we have innovated a response to the cronut: the doughssant. And, here is a banker’s dozen (I just made that up to refer to eleven of something – INNOVATION!): “Shameless Cronut Knockoffs from Around the World” and “THE WORLD’S FIRST INTERACTIVE CRONUT- (AND CRONUT IMPOSTOR-) FINDING MAP.” It is, again, needless to say that if cronuts are questionably innovative, then reportage on fro-nuts is so to a second degree.)

(Disclosure: I haven’t actually eaten a cronut.)

Placed in the context of global hunger and resource management, of course the idea that bakers are spending their time and energy seeking to eke out one more niche pastry to tempt luxury-seekers, some rather serious ethical questions arise. However, one doesn’t encounter serious personal ethical considerations when the purported innovation is something a person is truly free to choose not to buy. Nothing in my life (or anyone’s?) makes buying cronuts more necessary to me than buying either croissants or donuts. (Let’s accept for the moment that buying either of this is necessary.) So, the fact that there are cronuts (etc.) out there doesn’t force me, or their makers, into an ethical confrontation.

Some part of this rumination springs not merely from an inveterate fascination with cake and baked treats, but also in consideration of innovating technology for education, including ebooks, elearning, etc. And here a personal ethical question does rise up. An individual’s relationship to an ebook is (one hopes) different from one’s relationship to cronuts because a person wishing to learn about something might have a “need” relationship with the ebook, rather than merely a “want” relationship. However, like cronuts, ebooks remain tools of those with means. As a corollary to this, those who are excited about cronuts are also those who need not worry about where their next meal comes from, and those most excited about cronuts are those who never need to worry about where their next meal comes from. By analogy, those who are the most excited about ebooks are also those who need never worry about being plugged into the most innovative technology. The danger, then, is accepting without consideration of this relationship the conviction and urging of the technophiles (the “hype”) because it rests upon conditions that exist only for a few. Education, I hope we can agree, should be open equally to all.


Amazon vs. the Authors

Amazon’s stranglehold over the ebook market has led to strong-arm practices.

Initially, the online seller’s attempts to control (i.e., limit) sales of the publisher Hachette was seen as a problem for Hachette (and its writers) alone. Gradually, however, other authors began to wonder what would prevent Amazon from exercising its influence in more and more offensive ways, leading them consider whether the “Justice Department [ought] to investigate Amazon for illegal monopoly tactics.”

An article from the New York Times asks:  “What are the rights and responsibilities of a company that sells half the books in America and controls the dominant e-book platform?”

By choosing to place certain books (on certain subjects) on sale, or to ship more quickly, Amazon is able to privilege some political views over others. Of course, merchants can always influence or express political views through their sales and product lines. The difference is that Amazon has a vast influence on book selling, particularly ebook selling. In Ursula k. LeGuin words: “Amazon is using censorship to gain total market control so they can dictate to publishers what they can publish, to authors what they can write, to readers what they can buy. This is more than unjustifiable, it is intolerable.”

The Times article in particular describes the coming together of a diverse group of authors, some amongst the most well-known in American letters, to form Authors United. A letter signed by the assembled group and sent to Amazon’s Board of Director’s  protested Amazon’s sanctioning of Hachette authors’ books, stating:  “[t]hese sanctions included refusing preorders, delaying shipping, reducing discounting, and using pop-up windows to cover authors’ pages and redirect buyers to non-Hachette books,” acts which led to reduced sales by at least 50, and as much as 90 percent. The letter asks, “Do you as an Amazon director approve of this policy of sanctioning books?”


ePoiesis, and John Ashbery’s Ire

The ancient Greek work Poïesis (ποίησις) “is etymologically derived from the ancient term ποιέω, which means “to make” ” (Wikipedia), pointing to the fundamentally creative aspect of poetry. Words exist, like bricks. By a making, a poet creates a poem, like a builder creates a building.

Ordering words, then, are poetry. Poets order words by placing certain words in a certain order, but also by creating structures: lines, stanzas, indentations, and so forth.

Even the most basic poetic form presents challenges to electronic texts. For instance, since multiple spaces and tabs are not recognized by basic html, how would one easily replicate the following, with the varied indents present in various lines:


Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Metrical Feet. Lesson for a Boy” (image from this blog)

Or, how about the very common use, in poetic texts, of line numbers:


(From Project Gutenberg.)

Each is, of course, possible in html… but not easily. Rendering a poem in WordPress (like this blog), for instance, is not easy at all, something I discovered personally while trying to add some poems to Free Poems on Demand.

Here is one answer for poetical WordPress users.

In terms of Big Time, Famous Poets, when John Ashbery,  “looked at the first four electronic editions of his poetry he observed that they looked nothing like the original print editions and after he complained, his publisher, Ecco, promptly withdrew all four electronic books from circulation.”

This story at poetryfoundation.org (quoting heavily from an article in today’s New York Times), however, describes how Ashbery has come around to ebooks of his poems, now that (in Ashbery’s words) “It’s very faithful to the original formatting.”

Poets, then rejoice ! Your words can sing, electric(tronically).

An essay on the Poetry Foundation site goes into detail on some of the coding approaches to poetry, and also polls some poetry (book) publishers on their approaches. It is worth reading, both for information specifically on poetry and ebooks, but also illuminating on the questions arising as publishers move from exclusively print, to print and ebooks.


“Student Innovation Fellows: INNOVATE !”


All the Student Innovation Fellows gathered for an initial meeting last Thursday. It was wonderful to see the breadth and energy of the group, with SIFs from GSU undergraduate and graduate programs across a range of disciplines. We are all looking forward to the exciting prospects that the SIF program opens up, for us and for the GSU community.


The i has it.

The reader of an ebook faces the question: which reader software should I use? The creator of an ebook faces the question: which ebook format should I use? In neither case is there a universally “best” answer.

As business interests have scrambled to try to capture the ebook market, many formats have been introduced. This completely unregulated environment has created a certain amount of confusion and a lack of uniformity.

Ebook (or ebook or eBook) formats fall into some broad categories. First, those based strictly on their internal structure:

  1. epub (or ePub)
  2. PDF
  3. text (or txt)

Next, ebook formats based both on internal structure and the means to read them:

  1. iBooks (read exclusively on iOS devices)
  2. MOBI (Third party readers such as Stanza, FBReader, Kindle for PC and Mac, and STDU Viewer can open MOBI files.)
  3. AZW (used exclusively on the Amazon Kindle)

It is important to note that these categories are not mutually exclusive. That is, while one must use ibook reader to read an ibook, one can also use ibook reader to read epubs, pdf, and text files (but not MOBI or AZW formats). In general, the formats based strictly on internal structure are the most adaptable to the widest range of reader software. However, it is also true that ebook formats based on internal structure and the means to read them offer more bells and whistles: design options, interactivity, multimedia, etc.

(There are myriad other ebook formats; I list above only the most popular.)

Amazon, as the big player in the online shopping world, seeks to force its format on the world. Thus, if one buys an ebook on Amazon, it will be in a format readily on Amazon’s product: the Kindle.

Similarly, Apple (as the big player in the tablet market), seeks to force its format on the world. So, buying a book through the Apple store means buying a book in iBook format, readable on Apple’s reader product, which runs only on Apple devices.

All of these is rather unsatisfying. It is as if Apple (or Amazon)  decided only to release its books in the French language. If you can’t read French, then get French lessons! Oh, and Apple is the only French teacher in town.

In some respects, the iBook format stands apart.

Consider as evidence of this the fact that, these recent articles surveying ebook formats (via Google search) don’t even mention ibooks: 1, 2, 3, 4. This kind of general inquiry into the web reveals that the general internet population has resisted viewing ibooks as a significant ebook format. At most universities, Windows-based machines still dominate, and certainly Windows is the overwhelming platform for the less advantaged parts of the world. Further, ibooks (unlike epub, pdf, txt, etc.) isn’t a format that one can read online, cutting off another large chunk of the population. On the other hand, iBooks has created a format which offers the widest range of design features, making it attractive to book designers who want to create a book with style, multimedia, and other advanced features. Authors simply have to decide whether or not these features are worth the enormous shutting out of possible readers that goes along with the iBooks format.

Finally, it is important not to demonize Apple too harshly: Amazon had already initiated its attempt to corner the market, and Apple’s response was largely “business as usual.”

A somewhat onerous option that many choose is to create their book in multiple formats: a design-rich format for iBooks, and a widely useable epub format for other devices: this is the approach we are working toward for our Tobacco Study book, the goal being to produce an innovate ebook (through ibooks author) and a widely useable one (a reflowable version).

Innovating an Ancient Innovation

Photo: Mauro Risch

Photo: Mauro Risch

My first SIF project predates my appointment as a Student Innovation Fellow by several weeks. Now that’s innovative!

I was brought onto a project of the School of Public Health to generate an ebook based on the School’s research into the effects of Tobacco use on public health. My own exposure to this project predates even further: I attended a talk at the College of Law (where I am student) last year, shortly after the School of Public Health received a $19 million grant to pursue this research, the largest grant in GSU history. My interest in public health fits within my general interest in public interest legal work. It is a great honor for me to be a part of this project.

Initially, I began a broad inquiry into ebooks, truly untamed jungle of formats, features, and (in)compatibilities. An ebook is perforce defined by its method of reading. Thus, speaking most broadly, if a text is read on an electronic device, it is an ebook.

Marie Lebert of the University of Toronto wrote a “Short History of eBooks” in 2009, “based on 100 interviews conducted worldwide and thousands of hours of web surfing during ten years.” It begins with Project Gutenberg, the first digital library of texts, initiated in 1917: long before “e” meant “electronic”. The Government Printing Office offers a (much shorter) article focused on the state of things at present: “The History of eBooks from 1930’s “Readies” to Today’s GPO eBook Services.”

A familiar comparison is: the ebook vs. the book. This contrast is premised mainly on the long and rich history of books. Any new form of the book must measure itself against that, just as any innovative technology will be judged not merely on the “new” in innovation, but also on its superior qualities with respect to the old. Another way to put this: if a purported innovation isn’t better than what already exists, then in what sense is it an innovation?

The famous essay by Isaac Asimov, “The Ancient and the Ultimate” (1973) lays out this challenge quite effectively. (The link is to an essay about the essay… you can find Asimov’s essay in several of his collections, including “Asimov on Science” and also here on JSTOR.) Asimov’s clever inquiry isn’t designed to question technology, but mainly to illuminate just how technologically perfect a book is.

Seemingly the promised ebook revolution (throw away those bulky, dusty, paper-cut-inducing books and get whizbang-modern!) arrived when… sellable products arrived. I.e., the revolution will be marketed to you. The ubiquity of ebooks owes everything to Amazon (who makes Kindle) and Apple (who makes the iPad). Even though electronic book formats have existed for  as long as the internet, suddenly the “We Have EBooks” moment had arrived. This is, I suppose, little different than the original print revolution. Books had been around for centuries, but it was only when the technology for delivery appeared in the form of the printing press that the book became a power in itself.

The product-based nature of the current ebook revolution makes a cynical person wonder that the original revolution of printing, which freed ideas from the exclusive control of a few, creating to opportunity for an explosion in learning and information transmission, isn’t being co-opted by the media controllers? Is knowledge freed, or merely the purse strings of the masses?

The truth is, myriad ebook formats are free and the tools for their creation open source. And too, many writers and activists fight for more open copyright standards and more free means of distributing texts.

The desire to make an ebook with the widest possible distribution figured significantly into my work on the School of Public Health ebook… more on that in the next entry.


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