The writing has been on the wall for years, ever since Amazon first debuted the Kindle and showed people a world where they could carry a library in a portable device designed to make reading easy and comfortable for the eyes. Print books’ role in reading was bound to change. Then, in 2011 they proved that how we buy bulk books has shifted when they announced digital book sales had passed their sale of hard and softcover print books. And now we have data from the first three quarters of 2013 showing that the sale of e-books and digital readers has slowed, while the rate of decline of print book sales has slowed.
So what does that mean for readers and the industry? We have already gone through the initial growing pains spawned by years of incredible and triple-digit growth in sales of e-readers and e-books. Borders booksellers went out of business more than two years ago, while Barnes & Noble weathered the storm by introducing its own e-reader and reorganizing a few features as well as cutting the costs of running the store.
In the adjustment period, something else interesting happened. Because people have easy access to any book they could want online in both digital and print form from a supplier like Amazon, independent book stores that offer a more personal alternative to bulk books have gained a survival edge. People sometimes want a real, personalized suggestion for a new book, and the algorithms used by Amazon and GoodReads to guess your tastes are not very effective. So they go to these small book stores looking for expertise from a book lover who will take the time to get to know them, which has helped to keep many of these stores from going out of business.
The information about a shift in the shifts during 2013 suggests a few factors. First, e-readers and e-books have started to reach market saturation. There isn’t a lot of capacity left in the market for new Kindles, and most people who wanted to make the switch have done so. This is great news for publishers who can rely on slower shifts to create more predictability so they can craft multi-format strategies to meet demand for print and digital books.
Second, it suggests that other things are challenging the role of e-readers, especially tablets. Or rather, experts concluded that people converting to reading on tablets contributed to the slowdown in sales growth for e-readers. This reading platform, in turn, contributes to fewer digital book sales because people reading on tablets like the iPad divide their time between other uses.
Fortunately, these trends seems to be good news for everyone, writers, publishers, book sellers, and readers. Stabilization and a healthy mix of demand for print books and various digital media and readers ensure that everyone has an incentive to keep producing high-quality written work and survive financially without prices going up. And consumers will get to continue enjoying those affordable fruits in whatever format they prefer.
Books won’t die, not even the print versions nor the brick and mortar stores that sell them. It seems that for this round, at least, digital hasn’t led to the full obsolescence of the low-tech medium.