Books, Like the Phoenix, Are Rising from the Ashes

Written by Howard Fenton
Senior Technology Consultant, NAPL

Studying with printed booksIn Greek mythology, the phoenix is a resilient bird that is regenerated or reborn. According to the legend. the phoenix obtains new life by arising from the ashes of its predecessor. For the last few years, there has been a lot of gloom and doom predictions about the future of books, but the latest data suggests that books, like the phoenix, may be rising from the ashes and reborn.
Some critics have said that book sales and book readership are dying. Others have said that the future of books is not printed books, but electronic books. The most recent evidence suggests that neither is true. Books are not dying and electronic versions of books are not displacing printed versions of books.
According to the Association of American publisher’s report on the 2012 sales, book sales are up 7.4%, which amounts to $451 million in additional revenue for total sales of $6.5 billion. Of course some of that is tied to the most recent blockbuster books such as Fifty Shades of Grey and The Hunger Games, but every year there are a few best-selling books.
In addition, conclusions on the impact of e-books is changing. While the percentage of e-books increased by 42% in 2012, resulting in $1.2 billion in sales, that actually represents a decline in growth. As a result, there is a growing consensus of opinion that digital book readership is slowing and could plateau somewhere around 20-25% of all book readership.
That’s not to say that there is a declining interest in electronic book reading devices such as e- readers, templates and even smart phones from Apple, Amazon, Samsung, and Microsoft. But part of the good news about these devices is that they are reducing the rate of returns of unsold inventory of print books. According to the analysts from Publishers Lunch, book returns were down $318 million last year.
The question about book sales, book readership, and the impact of electronic books is an ongoing debate. The controversy can be traced back to 1835. There is evidence to support both the critics and fans of books in general, printed books, as well as electronic versions of books.
What do you think? Are printed books in decline or stable?  Are electronic books stable or growing?
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Howie Fenton is a consultant and business advisor at NAPL as well as a paid contributor to this blog. Howie advises commercial printers and in-plants on benchmarking performance against industry leaders, increasing productivity, and adding digital and value services through customer research. For more information click here.

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  1. Katherine May 7, 2013 -

    I can’t speak for anyone else, but I have always been anti-ebooks. There’s something so wrong about staring at a screen when I’m trying to get lost in a novel. I read non-fiction primarily, and I love being able to jot down notes or earmark pages. Plus, I’ve been to a few book signings and walked away with autographed books. One of my prized posessions is a signed book by my favorite writer, Hunter S. Thompson. He signed it for me shortly before he passed away. You can’t get an ebook signed. Case close.

  2. Sue May 8, 2013 -

    I agree with Katherine on some of her comments. If you are a book collector, how do you go about getting a 1st edition of an e-book and be able to showcase it in your office or home or pass it along to family as an inheritance …
    There are, of course, apps for both the printed book and the e-book and that is the crux of the issue. E-books are used for “the now” and printed books are enjoyed for now and re-enjoyed in “the future”.
    After the appps issue, there is also the generational preference issue … being a child of the “50’s and 60’s, I enjoy the printed version of a book. There’s a case for both the ebook and the printed book; but I don’t believe print will go away … after all, if Moses came down from the mountain and said look to the “cloud” for God’s laws instead of bringing back the tablets written in God’s hand, where would we all be now …

  3. Howie Fenton May 8, 2013 -

    Katherine and Sue,

    This is an interesting conversation and one that hits home for me. My other half is a book lover and has embraced both electronic and printed versions. We started with the original Kindle, both moved to the iPad, and now she loves the Kindle PaperWhite.

    But her love for signed books has never diminished. For example, when we were on vacation in New Orleans we had to go to a local bookstore. While visiting the Garden District Bookstore we discovered that Walter Isaacson, the author of Steve Jobs biography, was going to speak day we were departing. So we had to change our flights, bring our baggage to the bookstore, return to the bookstore, and buy a 3rd version of the book just so we could get it signed.

    But I think there’s a bigger issue here. Even if there was a way for authors to sign electronic versions of books, the issue of selling digital books has come under fire this week after a federal judge ruled that users could not resell digital music. Experts believe that this will lay the groundwork for a legal precedent restricting sales of electronic books. But we are really in the infancy of electronic books, methods for authors to sign them, and the ability to resell them. It’s possible that in 5-10 years all these issues will be resolved.


  4. Mary Beth May 8, 2013 -

    Oh, how I love books – all shapes, all kinds, all ages. The silly idea that printed books will go away is,well, silly!!

    Having said that…I do find that reading from my iPad or Kindle has some real benefits related to convenience, so I’ve become an equal opportunity reader. I advise most of my book clients that they need both, and I’m convinced we’re going to see that become the norm for most books, whether self-published or picked up by a traditional publishing house.

    While there is much angst over the so-called demise of the book, it’s misplaced. It’s actually book stores that are struggling. Book sales are actually thriving; it’s the development and distribution model that has been turned on its head.

    Nice article, Howie!

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