Hold on to Your Pockets

flickr credit: libraryman/Michael Porter

That is, your Pocket Books. Yes, capped, as in the name of the first paperbacks, which haven’t been with us forever, as some might think. Books weren’t published in this nifty little format until 1939. And for nearly 20 years, bookstores wouldn’t carry them. They finally relented when they could no longer ignore the paperback’s popularity.

Yeah, that doesn’t sound familiar at all.

Last week, Crain’s New York reported some statistics that wouldn’t surprise anyone who’s had at least one eye on the publishing industry in the past year: total sales for ebooks are now at 20% for the major publishing houses. Net sales of ebooks increased 144%, while sales of the once-most-convenient-book-format—the  paperback—dropped  18%.

No doubt you heard that earlier this year Amazon reached a milestone: their ebooks outsold their print books. Even for those expecting this, it arrived way earlier than many expected. Remember, the Kindle’s been around less than four years.

No big shocker then to hear that the paperback is considered an endangered species by some. Crain’s quoted publishing consultant Mike Shatzkin as predicting an “80% ebook world” in under five years. The fallout from numbers like these is that publishing SOP is getting thrown out the windows of Manhattan skyscrapers to crash on the traffic below. When to publish in paperback—or whether to bother at all—nothing can be taken for granted anymore.

I’ve already hopped on the ebook train. I love my Nook and am contemplating an upgrade already. When packing for a recent trip, I had the exciting experience of removing some paperback books when I realized I could just bring my Nook. A lighter suitcase and a happy moment! I still have plenty of print books, and I haven’t stopped reading them. But I love my Nook.

The Crain’s article brought to mind, however, a question that wasn’t addressed. If the world of books and reading becomes 80% electronic, that leaves 20% of (new) published work in print. Not the same as 20% of readers, of course. That sort of statistic is much harder to come by.

But if only 20% of anything out there to read is on paper, and the rest is accessible only by an electronic gadget, what happens to those who don’t have the gadget?

In our electronic world, we often hear about the importance of “access to information.” It’s key to any advancement or success in a technological society. Just look at any disaster-scenario movie—what’s our current disaster scenario? No power to run our technology. (Fallen Skies anyone?)

Eighty percent of information in electronic format.

Take away the gadget, and you take away the information, and with it any power in our society. What will happen to the readers of the 20% left in print? Who will they be? And what if that portion gets smaller than 20?

So, tell me—what do you see as the future for readers in our society?


  1. Wow, I really had to almost promise my first born to comment on here. If your comment numbers are lower than you’d like, I’d get rid of the requirement to register on your site first. It brought me to a wordpress login screen and I thought I could use mine, but after several tries I realized you’re using .org and that I had to set up my own profile on your site to comment.

    Anyway, wanted to chime in on this topic. I blogged about the paperbook industry in danger last week and how the ebook revolution is basically replacing that need. But my guess is that the numbers will even out to about a little over whatever the hardcover percentage is in the industry. You bring up an interesting point in the curatorial aspect as a human species– what happens to our written record if we lose power? I also suspect that what will stay in print will actually be worth printing — and that the price will go up and so owning these puppies will be a sign of wealth again like back before mass market PBs…

    • Thanks for the thoughts on approval. I might have to rethink that.

      Perhaps you’re right — what is printed will be what is worth the cost and effort of printing. And who gets to decide what’s worth it? That printed books will cost more is a key point. The previous upheaval that brought paperbacks into the mainstream brought us a new cheap format that anyone could afford. Ebooks could possibly (not definitely) do the opposite. The idea of simply owning a (printed) book as a sign of wealth, well, it’s a bit much for me, who’s almost enough of a geek to call a bibliophile.

      As far as our written record, that’s in serious jeopardy already, I think. I’ve heard similar discussions regarding maps, which are basically disappearing as permanent records, and with them loads of information. Sources of info that were once static are now fluid and so when they change — when a file is updated — the previous version is simply gone. Massive power outages might cut our access to all our current info, but the written record — what we’ve looked to for history, to learn about past cultures — that soon won’t exist for societies of the 21st century. That’s what I see coming at us, at least. But I’m not a pessimist. 😉

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