Paper or plastic? Coffee or tea? Take the stairs or take the elevator? Every day we make decisions to use, to consume or to do one thing over another, sometimes without even giving it a second thought. The decisions we make are usually based on personal preference, what we know and are most comfortable with. Emerging technologies have created questions for Americans in the past, such as: write a letter or send an email? A major question that has arisen, concerning technology, is whether to use print books or e-books? E-books, which are electronic books, are growing in popularity and demand. American consumers are faced with the question of using print books or e-books more often than ever before, and the decision that the consumer makes is having a major impact on the publishing world and bookstore survival.
E-books have grown in popularity and sales in recent years, and although they may seem like a brand new technology, they have been around for quite some time. E-text #1 is the name of the first e-book ever, which became available in July 1971 on Project Gutenberg. Project Gutenberg was founded in 1971 by a young University of Illinois freshman, Michael Hart. The project is a digital library available to anyone with computer and internet access, at no cost. Project Gutenberg’s mission is this: “to put at everyone’s disposal, in electronic versions, as many literary works from public domain as possible for free”. Currently, the project offers over 38,000 free e-books, in over 25 languages. The vision of Michael Hart still lives, despite his death in 2011 (Lebert). Project Gutenberg initiated major changes in the publishing world. This opened up a new world of possibilities for readers everywhere. In cases where a library is not nearby or if a person didn’t feel like going out to get a book to read, there is now the opportunity to read from a computer.
As with any technology, e-book technology needed to evolve and so it did. Along came a wave of early dedicated reading devices, such as the Rocket eBook, which was introduced in 1998 and sold by retailers like Powell’s Books (Sennett). A person no longer had to stay in one place to read an e-book, but now had the portability of a print book. E-books were also available on other devices not specifically dedicated for reading, such as the Palm phone. Although the Rocket eBook allowed for portability, it did not gain a strong following. The latest of the e-readers: the Kindle, the nook and other devices such as the iPad have had much more commercial success.
It has been over 40 years since the unveiling of E-text #1, the first e-book, yet it seems that in the majority of the consumer’s minds, e-books are a new and exciting prospect. As with most new trends or “fads” in consumerism, there has been a sort of boom with e-books and e-readers. Where once I would see people on their daily public transportation commute reading paperback or hardcover books, I now more frequently see people with sleek and thin e-readers with who knows how many e-books downloaded. What has caused this shift towards e-readers? The obvious reason is that it is perfect for reading when away from home. For example, a person away from home on vacation or a business trip can read one book plus many more, without ever having to lug around several books and all that weight. Portability is one factor many of the people I interviewed mentioned. Canon Crawford, instructor at Marylhurst University stated he can have a dozen or more e-books available to him on his e-reader and can choose to read for as long as the device has battery life.
In the days before e-books had reached great popularity, college students would have to carry heavy textbooks with them the majority of time. Now, with e-books, a student can have a laptop, smart phone or dedicated e-book reader and have all, or a majority, of their textbooks downloaded to it. Schools, such as Marylhurst University, have online courses designed for students that are not able to go on campus or find it easier to take classes via an online forum-style classroom. In one of my own online classes, all the texts required for the class are available online. For example, if I begin reading one text on my laptop, I can finish reading it on my smart phone later on. I can appreciate the convenience of the e-books for this class because of the ease it gives me in being able to read anywhere without having to carry several books, as well as being able to choose what electronic device I can use.
Americans are living in a technologically advanced world where many people have smart phones and laptops. Every day there is work being done towards more advancement in the field of technology. When e-readers first came onto the market they did not have a strong welcome, but they eventually gained traction. It may have seemed like an extra expense to purchase a device dedicated just for reading, but soon it was discovered that buying e-books is actually cheaper. “The first people to jump to the Kindle were the most avid readers… if you’re reading 10 books a month, it made great financial sense right away to get a Kindle [or other e-reader],” states Darrin Sennett, the director of strategic projects at Powell’s Books. The “great financial sense” that Sennett mentions is a major factor in our current times, especially when prices of everyday items seems to be escalating; the e-book appeals to the bargain book shopper.
In fact, the publishers of e-books had to step in to regulate pricings that were being set by Amazon, explains Sennett. The online store was selling e-books for $9.99, which is less than what they pay the publishers. When a company like Amazon purchases products at wholesale, they are entitled to turn around and sell the product at any price they’d like, even if that means taking losses; this is known as the wholesale model. The publishers (Random House, Harper Collins, Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, Penguin, and Hachette), realized this and had to act fast. If Amazon were to continue pricing all their e-books at $9.99 or less, they would create an environment in which consumers would assume and expect that all e-books would be that cheap. That could eventually lead to a demand for even lower costing e-books. “So… one by one the [publishers] moved from the ‘wholesale model’ to the ‘agency model,’ in which the publisher sets the price, and no stores are allowed to sell it for less,” such as with Apple products (Sennett). Most e-books are now priced between $12.99 and $14.99, which is still less than a hard-cover book.
Having established that affordability and portability of e-books are most important in consumers’ minds, the next question to answer is: what is considered negative about e-books? One thing to keep in mind when weighing the pros and cons of e-books is that people have had longer relationships with print books than e-books. Imagine your favorite book in your hands; imagine the weight of it, the feel of the cover and the smell of those well-known, worn and smooth pages. It can bring back nostalgic feelings of childhood or bring memories of reading by
the fireplace on a rainy winter day to mind. Print books are comfort, they are familiar and they have been in our lives much longer. Tiffany Perala, instructor at Marylhurst University, said “I love my print books, and I prefer writing, annotating, and folding pages. That said, the e-books I’ve purchased have the option to highlight, bookmark, and jump ahead and back with a simple flick.” E-books give the reader alternative options for things that one could normally do with a print book, such as highlighting. One classmate of mine once told me that e-books can do all that print books can, if only they could emit a “real” book smell!
It seems to me that there are three main divisions among readers: those that love using e-books, those that only want to use print books and those that don’t really know what side to be on. There are also those that can’t afford e-readers or books, at all. American people are asked to choose between printed books and e-books, but sometimes the real question is if a person has money to purchase books or not. The country faced an economic crisis and many of the people who could afford to purchase a book or two for pleasure reading might not be able to dispose of their income as freely. It is not the American consumers in general that are having an impact on the publishing world and bookstore; it is the Americans of the middle to upper class that are exercising their power as consumers. The publishing market is being dominated by that select group of people that have the disposable income to purchase books and have the luxury of choosing between e-books and print books. As the prices of both print books, e-books and e-readers become more feasible for the consumer and as the economic situation of the lower income consumers improves, the possibility to purchase those items is more probable. As more people begin purchasing books again, hopefully the decision between e-book and print book will be faced by more American consumers and not just those of the middle to upper class.
Regardless of what side a person is on or whether or not books can be afforded, the print book market has taken a negative impact because of e-books, but also because of the major economic recession that hit the United States in 2008. The mass-market paperback in particular has suffered the most, revealed the Association of American Publishers and the Book Industry Study Group, with sales that have fallen 14% since 2008. Readers, who in the past could pick up a cheap novel at the drugstore or at an airport, are now saving those few bucks because of the tough financial situations many of us are facing today. Instead of mass-market paperbacks, store shelves are now being used for hardcovers and trade paperbacks. “For decades, the mass-market paperback has stubbornly held on, despite the predictions of its death since the 1980s,” wrote Julie Bosman for a New York Times article on the subject. It has had to compete with trade paperbacks, which used to be released one-year after the release of the hardcover, and are now being released sooner. In the race for the reader’s interest and money, the mass-market paperback just can’t win.
With the rise of e-book sales, the mass-market paperback is in serious danger of going extinct. Readers that would buy discounted paperbacks can now purchase the e-book version at a low price on the first day of publication. If e-books are available at a cheap price without the reader having to wait, then e-books would seem like the most logical choice for the avid reader. Liate Stehlik, a publisher from William Morrow, Avon and Voyager poses the question: “…. Do you still want to wait for the book [discount]?” From the economic downturn of mass-market paperback, it would seem that the answer is a resounding “no”. “The people who used to wait to buy the mass-market paperback because of the price aren’t going to wait anymore,” (Stehlik). The e-book is the future mass-market paperback.
The convenience and price of e-books are appealing to the reader; another factor that also comes into play is their environmental friendliness. We are in an era in which we can no longer ignore the consequences of our actions and the effects we have on the Earth’s environment. People are recycling more, reusing more and reducing their waste. A question for the “green” reader to consider would be: does getting an e-book help the environment? A report by The Cleantech Group suggests that using an e-book can reduce a person’s carbon footprint. The group found that a book uses up “approximately 7.46 kilograms of CO2 over its lifetime and that the Kindle produces roughly 168 kg during its lifecycle,” (“The Ecological Case for E-books”). Most people own more than one book and have purchased many books in their lifetimes, meaning that their carbon footprint could potentially be way over the 168 kg produced by the Kindle.
Another clear advantage for using e-books concerns textbooks. Besides the obvious discomfort of having to carry around a heavy textbook around and their typically outrageously high prices, textbooks are updated every couple of years, making the previous version obsolete. Instead of purchasing the print version of a textbook, one could simply get the e-book version which typically costs less and has less of an impact on the environment. Books have been in existence for hundreds of years and their impact on the environment may be unclear to a majority of readers. Here’s a look at why books aren’t environmentally friendly: the wood that is used to make books takes a lot of energy to process into paper and more energy to transport. Once the wood is made into the finished book product, which takes energy in creating and transporting to the bookstore, the reader must then drive to the bookstore in order to purchase it. All of the transportation that takes place uses gas and the cars on the road contribute to air pollution. Although it still takes energy in to make an e-book and an e-reader, over their lifetime their impact on the environment can be considerably less than a beloved print book.
The environment may thank you for using e-books, but what device is being used has to be considered as well. When all processing and transporting is done for a print book, it does not continue to create issues concerning carbon emissions. The same cannot be said for some devices being used for e-book reading. Journalist Duncan Graham-Rowe writes “reading a newspaper online for 30 minutes a day produces more emissions than reading a paper version.” This puts a twist to the argument that e-books are environmentally friendlier than print books. It’s simply not enough to read an e-book, you must also consider what you are reading on. If a reader is using a computer that is plugged into an electrical outlet, the electricity being used is creating emissions. Even when using a dedicated e-book reader emissions are created when downloading e-books. If a reader wants to be the greenest they can be and read e-books, then the best option is to use a dedicated e-reader, suggests Graham-Rowe. “That’s because devices like this not only allow content to be downloaded wirelessly without needing to go through a PC as well, but also because their novel electronic-paper displays use so little energy.” It’s clear that the argument between what is best, a print book or an e-book, is not simple to answer.
To the e-book advocate, e-books are cheap, convenient and if using the correct device, environmentally friendly as well. As more and more readers decide to go e-book over print book, bookstores are suffering. One major bookstore that took its fall was Borders Books and Music, which closed all their 399 locations in 2011. At its peak, Borders had 1,200 stores worldwide, but when faced mounting debt, they had to downsize to 399 stores. According to Cris Ferguson, who was once a Borders employee, many factors contributed to Borders’ fate, but “the single largest contributing factor to the company’s collapse was the growth of the e-book market and [its] failure to capitalize on market change.” Borders didn’t launch its own e-reader and didn’t take advantage of the growing number of readers switching to e-books like other major booksellers, Barnes and Noble and Amazon. The company announced in 2008 that it would carry the Sony e-Reader and have an online e-book store, but it didn’t go into effect until 2010, “three full years after Amazon debuted the Kindle in 2007, and one year after Barnes and Noble’s release of nook,” (Ferguson).
Borders seemed unprepared to enter the technological world that other major booksellers were phasing into and their late entrance into the e-book market made it difficult for employees that had to sell e-readers, which were often faulty and difficult to navigate. Borders didn’t even have control of its website until 2008, which moved at a snail’s pace and caused customer frustration. Borders is proof that bookstores need to adapt to the changing market to appeal to both the e-book reader and the traditional print book reader.
The closure of such a major bookstore has had a deep impact in the publishing world. Hundreds of people will have lost their jobs, beyond Borders own employees. Publishers had teams that specifically dealt with doing business with Borders. Suddenly, a major outlet for book sales has shut down. “There is no other outlet big or solid enough to absorb the blow; there is nowhere else for all those paperbacks and hardcovers to go,” says NPR blogger Rachel Syme. “The most logical thing is to stop printing them.” It is hard to imagine a world without print books, but if bookstores keep closing down, there doesn’t seem to be a bright future for either bookstores or print books.
Barnes and Noble, a major bookstore company, hasn’t had much of an issue in phasing into the new era of e-books, but what about the independent bookstores? Their future has always been precarious, with the big bookstores breathing down their necks. E-books now pose another challenge to the financial stability and security for all those “mom and pop” bookstores. In an interview with Darrin Sennett, some light was shed on the new obstacles that independent bookstores now face. One of those is what Sennet calls the “showrooming’ factor, which is when people go to a bookstore to look through a book in person and if they are interested, will go and purchase it online for a cheaper price. In an effort to make some money, bookstores are dedicating more floor space to non-book products, like toys and games. It may seem like the obvious solution is simply to jump on the e-book/e-reader bandwagon like other major booksellers. Sennett says that it would be a massive investment for an already struggling business to try to get an edge on the Kindle or the nook by creating a new device. Not only would the bookstore need plenty of capital to launch the device, but would need to continually update hardware and software.
Doom and gloom doesn’t have to be the fate of independent bookstores. Sennett offers insight on what keeps consumers going to Powell’s Bookstore, a successful indie bookstore in Portland, Oregon. One big factor Powell’s has going for itself is it’s a tourist attraction. “The Burnside Powell’s has always had its massive attraction because of its singular size, which draws not only tourists but local people who love it for what it is…” Other bookstores should consider that less can be more. Instead of having a giant selection, bookstores should sell and display the books that readers should read. A reader should be able to go to the bookstore and talk to a person that’s passionate about the books they are selling, that way it makes it easy for the reader to want to purchase the book right at that moment. Sennett also suggests that bookstores could work the “socialization angle” and create an environment where people can gather for coffee, book clubs, author events and even cocktails. Powell’s currently has author events and readings which does attract local readers. In all honesty, people don’t open bookstores to become rich but because of their love of books and their desire to share that love with others. What bookstores need to do, now more than ever, is find ways to creatively show people why bookstores are important.
Something of importance to point out, besides the fact that there are major changes in the publishing world currently happening, is that books are selling. This means that more people are turning to reading as a form of entertainment. Authors aren’t being financially affected by the switch from print books to e-books. “Generally speaking, authors make more royalties on an e-book than on a paperback” (Bosman). The jobs that were sadly lost by the closure of bookstores, like Borders, might be balanced out by jobs being created as e-book sales rise and people are needed to create and sell them.
Ultimately, the question still remains: e-book or print book? The answer doesn’t have to be one or the other. I believe that there is room in today’s market for both. There will always be people that prefer one form of books over the other, what needs to happen is for bookstores to learn to appeal to both consumers. A major bookstore like Barnes and Noble appeals to both readers by selling print books at their locations, while also selling e-readers and e-books online; Powell’s appeals to readers by having a wide variety of books to choose from, as well as by having author events and selling e-books online. The independent bookstore can also appeal to both readers, without having to sell e-books or e-readers and without having a huge selection. How? By having passionate readers sell the books that they are passionate about, enabling them to carry a conversation with a customer about which book the reader should lose themselves in next. The bookstore could have weekly book club meetings, where both e-book readers and print book readers can meet and discuss novels. Readers need to consider what they prefer to read from best: print or e-book, while keeping an open mind about using both. The possibilities for bookstores are out there, it’s just a matter of being creative. The opening of the new era of e-books doesn’t have to mean the death of print books. In fact, print book publishers and bookstores should use this as a time for reinvention and as a time to help people fall in love with reading all over again.