The e-book may be here to stay; but the physical book is alive and well, and doing better than ever
So, were the rumours of the death of the physical book greatly exaggerated? You remember them, don’t you? All those articles in the media bemoaning the fact that people were switching over to digital reading devices, and that the sales of actual books were declining year on year. It was inevitable, these doomsdayers assured us, that the book as we know and love it – rustling paper, beautifully crafted covers, and that ineffable smell of print and ink – would soon become a novelty item. Instead all of us would adapt to digital devices and do all our book-reading on one kind of screen (e-readers like Kindle) or another (smartphones and tablets with an e-reader app).
Well, the facts would seem to belie that assertion. According to a recent article in the New York Times, e-book sales fell by 10 per cent in the first five months of 2015 in America. And a Nielson survey showed that the portion of people who read books primarily on an e-reader fell to 32 per cent in the first quarter of 2015 from a high of 50 per cent in 2012.
In the UK, its largest book retailer, Waterstones, announced that it would cease to sell Kindles in its stores, because the sales were ‘pitiful’. It would use the space freed up to display physical paperbacks and hardbacks instead. The move makes sense, given that the sales of physical books in Waterstones rose by 5 per cent in December 2014. The Guardian reported that figures released by Nielson Bookscan showed that sales of print books for the first 36 weeks of 2015 rose by 4.6 per cent when compared to the same period in 2014, the first time such growth had been reported since 2007.
Amazon was quick to read the writing on the bookstore walls. It moved to open its first physical bookstore in November 2015 in Seattle’s University Village neighbourhood (though, of course, there was a designated space for e-readers as well), with the most popular books that week displayed behind the checkout counter. Prominent signs assured customers that the prices in-store were the same as they are on Amazon online, so nobody need fear missing out on a good bargain.
I couldn’t help but smile with quiet satisfaction as I read these stories. It felt good to see that the physical book was pulling its weight in the battle between digital platforms and real-life reading. Except that in my experience, it isn’t so much an either/or situation, but a bit of both.
Speaking for myself, I was a late convert to the pleasures of digital reading. I still don’t own a Kindle but I do have the app on my Ipad. And over the last few years, I have built up quite a library on it, with titles ranging from The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (I couldn’t find the physical copy the night I watched the movie; hence the impulse purchase) to all five books of the Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin (downloaded before I went on holiday so that I could read those ‘heavy’ tomes without weighing down my suitcase).
But my new-found fondness for the Kindle doesn’t mean that my love affair with the physical book is over. Not by a long measure. I may ‘cheat’ on my first love from time to time, guiltily dipping into the Elizabeth Jane Howard’s The Cazalet Chronicles or my favourite Dorothy L. Sayers mystery late at night, as I read undisturbed on my IPad without disturbing the slumbering household. But after this late-night straying I always slink back home in the light of day, suitably chastened and eager to make amends to my physical read of the moment. Since you ask, it is All The Light We Cannot See, a brilliant book by Anthony Doerr; do pick up a copy or download.
My brain now automatically sorts books between those that I wish to possess physically and those that I am happy to have stored electronically. So, favourite authors like Donna Leon and Daniel Silva are bought in bookstores, and then propped up on my bookshelves to be dipped into as and when I fancy. Books that I am unlikely to want to re-read are downloaded on the Kindle: Jodi Picoult, Robert Galbraith, Harlan Coben, Lee Child are among this list.
Then, there are those authors who enter my life through Kindle and then push their way on to my bookshelves through sheer persistence. I first read Gone Girl on Kindle, but was sufficiently moved to track down and buy physical copies of all the previous books of Gillian Flynn. I discovered Elena Ferrante (the writer not the woman, who still hides behind her pen name and her anonymity) when I downloaded My Brilliant Friend on a whim. But such was the power of the writing that it leapt off the screen and took possession of my nightstand. Since then, I have bought physical copies of all four books of her Neapolitan quartet.
Sometimes this process works in reverse. I discovered Sarah Dunant in print and still treasure the physical book I bought (The Birth of Venus). But the last book (Sacred Hearts) didn’t really resonate, so her latest (Mapping The Edge) has been consigned to my Kindle. Ditto, with Sophie Hannah and Kate Atkinson.
And so it goes, as the e-reader and physical books continue to co-exist happily in my life; as I am sure they do in yours.