I may or may not be one of the few optimistic people left in the industry who is optimistic about the future of publishing. Perhaps this is a function of someone green enough to be hopeful or perhaps it’s the function of being incredibly shortsighted. Regardless, I’m someone who believes that the general desire for long-form fiction and nonfiction will overcome whatever format (e, print, some combination of both) hiccoughs may arise.
I am not someone who believes that ebooks will cannibalize print sales. But JJ, you may cry, you are old-fashioned and fetishize the physical object. Well and true, but there are many sorts of readers in the world, and I’m but one type.
Based on my own experiences with several different types of readers (both human and machine), I’ve laid down the how I see the various types interact with both print and digital.
1. The Casual Buyer: The person who usually reads the latest NYT bestseller because they’ve heard of it through conventional means: print, TV, media, digital, what-have-you. These people buy, at most, 3 or 4 books a year, often to see what the “fuss” is about. (I was raised in a family of Casual Buyers.)
- The Casual Buyer and Print: These people have no problems forking over $25+ when they walk into a bookstore because they don’t do it often. They are also readers who buy mass market paperbacks at the airport for vacation reading.
- The Casual Buyer and Ebooks: Physical book not avaible? They probably won’t read it. These readers don’t (and probably won’t) read enough to justify buying a dedicated ereader. However, they may or may not download a digital book for their smartphones while waiting in line for coffee, depending on whether or not they’re bored of playing Tap Tap Revenge.
2. The General Reader: A person who enjoys reading, who is often asking for and giving recommendations, and who may or may not be deciding whether or not $60 at the bookstore is worth the $299 (and then some) for an ereader.
- The General Reader and Print: Because of the amount of reading this person does, s/he is most likely a buyer of trade paperbacks, with maybe a hardcover or two if s/he can’t wait.
- The General and Ebooks: If this person hasn’t already, s/he will probably eventually transition into buying a dedicated ereader or perhaps the iPad, once the price of the device is low enough to justify the price.
3. The Genre Consumer: This person most likely reads mass market or category books in romance or mysteries/thrillers. They may or may not belong to book-of-the-month clubs and often buy 3 or 4 books on impulse.
- The Genre Consumer and Ebooks: This reader probably already owns a dedicated ereading device. This is for practical reasons as they buy so many books they either don’t have the space, and the cost of a device is more than justified by the number of books they read.
- The Genre Consumer and Print: Print? What print? This type of reader is probably ahead of the general public in terms digital publishing and will only occasionally buy a hardcover if they really, really need to. (And grumble about it all the way to the bank.)
4. The Bookworm: Me. And people like me. We’ll read anywhere, anytime. At the breakfast table. Walking home from the subway. In the shower. We also reread our favourite books over and over and over and over. We eat, sleep, and breathe books.
- The Bookworm and Print: We’re the suckers who’ll buy hardcover because we want the book as an object. And then later we buy the paperback because it’s more portable. For instance, I have both the hardcover and mass market paperback of JONATHAN STRANGE & MR NORRELL because carting around an 8000 page hardcover is stupid.
- The Bookworm and Ebooks: The Bookworm may or may not have an ereader. S/he may or may not use it. It all depends.
A Bookworm is probably the most conscious about the experiential difference between print and digital because of the way s/he reads. Many Bookworms are “speed readers. Print allows for speed reading in a way that ereader simply cannot recreate. First, for someone like me, it’s essential to be able to see two pages at once. Second, the ability to flip back and forth a few pages (or more) is crucial, especially if I need reminding of a small detail I might have missed or haven’t fully processed.
Many Bookworms I know tend to read books multiple times: the first to devour the story, the subsequent reads to taken in small details.
The conclusion I’ve drawn from my observations is that print (especially the hardcover) isn’t going anywhere. What I do believe will have a limited shelf life is the paperback. Why? What people forget is that the paperback as we know it is also a relatively recent technological advance in the history of publishing.
The paperback was created to be portable, disposable, and cheap, which is why many children’s books and genre novels are published in mass market. My boss made quite a handsome living off Sweet Valley High. The point of the paperback is to produce a lot of them. What are ebooks but a better way to be portable, mass producable, and cheap?
Sarah Jae-Jones (who prefers to be called JJ) was born and raised in sunny southern California but has since transplanted herself to New York City. She cannot possibly tell you why she gave up gorgeous weather, serene beaches, and the smell of night-blooming jasmine for soul-sucking winters, unforgiving concrete, and all-night Ukranian diners, but she blames it all on Sesame Street. When she’s not ruthlessly editing books at St. Martin’s Press, she can be found jumping out of perfectly good airplanes.