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Adam Anderson

Instant gratification, or e-books outsell hardcovers

by Adam Anderson | Dun & Bradstreet Editor

July 19, 2010 | 2 Comments »

The Gutenberg Bible -- when books changed forever

According to the New York Times, Amazon reported that e-books outsold hardcover books for the past three months.

Did you hear that? That was the sound of a market changing.

While not exactly a tectonic shift, it’s still a momentous occasion. Book-buying has been changing for years, even before e-readers became ubiquitous. For instance, even a decade ago, there were independent bookstores in most cities and towns around the country. Now, most cities have a Borders or Barnes & Noble (Hastings and Books-A-Million are distant competitors), and indies are few and far between, despite the indie-bound label.

It used to be you went into a bookstore and walked out with a book (or two or more, if you were me). Now, if you go into a bookstore, you will see plenty of books, but you may not see (and likely will not see) the book you specifically went in to get. If it’s a best seller, sure, but if it’s slightly obscure, forget it.

So if you, like me, went looking for The Great Oom: the Improbable Birth of Yoga in America at an Austin-area Borders after reading reviews in the New Yorker and Slate, you would be out of luck.

Easier, then, to just order it online from Amazon.

So how is this connected to the rising sales of e-books over hardcovers? Well, if you can’t reliably find an actual book at your bricks-and-mortar bookstore, then online shopping quickly becomes the most reliable way to find a book. And if you are already online, you have many ways to read e-books — the Kindle, the Nook, the Sony E-Reader, the iPad, etc. And as long as you are ordering your book from the same device that you could read it on, and instant gratification being the fine thing that it is, then you don’t really need that hardcover.

The market has been ringing a death knell for bookstores for quite some time and this news probably doesn’t help, since bookstores thrive on actual sales of hardcopy books. I think that the Espresso bookmaking machine, or some variation thereof could help stave off the inevitable and possibly even revive the bookstore industry.

However, this sales shift occurred in the three months preceding the summer beach-reading season. Let’s see what happens during the holiday gift-giving season, in which books are, in some households, a leading gift. Will there be more Kindles under the tree or the same number of hardcovers as always? Personally, I have sworn off predictions after my disastrous opinion back in 2007 of the resilience of the real estate industry, so I’ll keep that one to myself.

Oh what the heck — where’s the fun in that? My money is a boost in Kindles under the tree, and only a minor drop in the sale of hardcovers.

Because when it comes to book-buying as with so many things, tradition is tradition, but the power of instant gratification can never be underestimated.


Photo by Amy Allcock, used under a Creative Commons License.

A study recently found that reading is done 10% slower on an e-book than with its paper counterpart. I guess as readers gain more experience and skill with e-books, however, the difference in reading speeds will decrease. For myself I prefer paper anyway because I like to underline passages with ink. There’s just something aggressive and yes, physical, about reading with a pen in hand that appeals to me.

Call me old school, but I still don’t see the value in buying a device for $100-200 that will enable me to read books that I will still pay for, when I could just get the book on Amazon instead. Then again, I am a fan of older books (military aviation reference, for example) that haven’t made it to eBook format, and probably never will. While I see the value in it for some, I just don’t think the eBook format is going to be a world-beater, and will be more of a nichey thing.

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