Flunking Sainthood

Flunking Sainthood

Print Books Aren’t Worth Fighting For

In this morning’s Chicago Tribune, guest writer Aaron Gilbreath, a bookseller at the esteemed indy stalwart Powell’s Books in Oregon, tells publishers that we should “fight dirty” to save our industry from the onslaught of ebooks.

“Why hasn’t America’s publishing industry launched an ad campaign as seductive and aggressive as the Kindle’s? Not to market front-list titles or authors, but to market the paper book form itself? In other words, sell consumers on the exclusive pleasures and qualities traditional books offer that e-books cannot. That’s exactly what Kindle’s TV commercials have been doing, saying here’s what we can do that regular books can’t.


Kindle ads are ingeniously engineered. Through a string of images (Kindle in your back pocket; Kindle withstanding licks from a dog), Kindle advertises itself as thinner, lighter and more durable than a book. And with a number of memorable taglines like “Books in 60 seconds,” Kindle boasts its unique advantages: 900,000 titles available on Amazon; rapid downloads; able to hold an entire library in the space occupied by a single paperback.

How can paper books compete with that? If traditional book publishers want to survive, then their marketing departments better think of a way. And fast.”

The editorial seems to take it for granted that ebooks are putting publishers out of business. That’s wildly incorrect. Publishing is hardly in peachy shape, but that’s not the fault of ebooks in general or the Kindle in particular. Myriad other factors are driving our industry to innovate or die, including the following:


1) the “cult of the free,” or the growing expectation among consumers that books will be cheaper than their production costs or even free;

2) the ubiquity of used print books that are so inexpensive and readily available online that there is rarely a reason for consumers to buy a new print book unless it has just been released;

3) the demise of traditional brick-and-mortar bookstores;

4) the high cost of returns from stores and distributors (all of which occur at publishers’ expense);

5) the superiority of rapid online research sites to print reference works; and


6) the explosion of fee-for-service self-publishing, which will make soon traditional publishing obsolete. (That’s what should keep publishers awake at night.)

Not only are ereaders not responsible for publishing’s dire straits, I’d argue they may be part of the industry’s tenuous salvation. Consider these factors:

1) With ereaders as they are currently configured, every book sold is a genuine sale. Publishers don’t have to pay to warehouse books, ship them, or take them back from stores at our own expense if they don’t sell. There are no returns to speak of.

2) Publishers can save about 20% of our production costs on ebooks. In an industry with such razor-thin margins, that’s huge.


3) There is no such thing as a used ebo0k. In other words, the print used book sales that are now killing publishers don’t exist at all on the Kindle; with the Nook, one loan is permissible for each book, and that’s it.

4) Right now, most book contracts stipulate that authors earn a lower royalty from ebooks than print books. This will likely change (and, speaking as a publisher who is also an author, it should), but at the moment, most publishers take home a higher percentage of every electronic book sale than we do from every print book sale.

(What’s really a problem for publishers — and for authors — and for booksellers — is that with public libraries now forging alliances with ereaders so that borrowers will be able to download ebooks directly to their devices from their local library without ever having to leave their own home, no one in his right mind will want to buy a book anymore. But that’s another post entirely.)


So, to answer the editorial’s central question — why publishers aren’t aggressively hawing the print medium in expensive ads around the nation — it’s because it’s not in our best interest to do so.

It also does not benefit the average reader. I’ve been a book lover all my life, and will continue to be a biblioholic in whatever medium is close at hand, but I can see no inherent advantage that print has over digital, and plenty of advantages that digital has over print. If these publishers’ imaginary ads are merely going to rehash nostalgic arguments about how print “smells like a real book” or how “you can’t curl up with a Kindle” (which is perfect nonsense), then that’s hardly the progressive, innovative approach that this bookseller thinks is necessary to save publishing from itself. It is in fact precisely the opposite.


  • Ellen

    I’m especially intrigued by the idea that libraries making e-books widely available is a much greater threat than e-books themselves (perhaps because I’m married to a librarian whose main job is purchasing and negotiating licenses for online content). I wonder if publishers are looking ahead to see how they can anticipate a sea change like that, and figure out how to work with libraries to make this future model a win-win? I know from my husband that academic libraries pay 10s and even 100s of thousands to license online access to major journals and e-books. Those publishers have figured out how to have a healthy business model catering largely to libraries. Obviously, your average public library can’t afford that, but might there be a middle road of patrons paying a fee to libraries for access to nearly anything they want, or something. I am not an economist, a publisher, or a librarian, but it intrigues me.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Marcia Z Nelson


    I’m going to quibble. From a publisher’s point of view you’re right. But this reader & bibliophile is having trouble making the switch, even though I know it’s to my advantage. I hate turning pages on a screen — idiosyncratic but there you have it. Nor could I see myself with a child in the crook of my arm, the two of us huddled with a screen at bedtime. No thanks on that. Sure, my view is partly tinted by nostalgia; but I am also firmly convinced that print books will have their fans, their niche, their uses.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Jerusha Neal

    I also loan books to folks – and while I know there are digital sharing options, I know lots of people without computer access – much less “Kindle” access. There is great convenience to ebooks – on the consumption end… but having objects that exist on my shelves, that can be given, shared, serving as visible reminders of grace… this is significant.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Angelina Duell

    Last week a broke down and bought a kindle because of the advantages of reading it at the gym over reading a paper book, i.e., much less fumbling. I also dropped it in the locker room. It was fine and the back part that unhooked clicked back in with no problems, but a paper book would never been in danger of being unusable if it fell on the floor, baring a floor made out of fire.

    For me there is so much that surrounds the print book that makes it a valuable commodity outside of simply “smelling like a book.” In my family home we have over 10,000 books and in almost any instance someone in the family has a memory associated with the book, where it was bought, with whom, and why.

    Buying books to read on the kindle is almost entirely an individual experience that doesn’t require interactions with any other human beings. Of course, with the rise of amazon, etc, neither is buying a print book but as a young person (early twenties) who has been using a computer almost my entire life, it has been a rare day that I have bought a pleasure book online; online and kindle purchases have been exclusively for school purposes.

    While I understand that screen reading is the way of the future, I agree with Jerusha that the communal aspect of paper books is something that will a market for them.

    He also brings up a fair point that owning an e-readers is a matter of privilege. Unfortunately because of book pricing so is owning a new hard cover.

    As an author, what do you think is the likelihood that publishers would do themselves a service by abandoning hard covers of new books and putting them straight into paperback as opposed to waiting a year in between?

  • http://Ridiculous. Heavy Reader

    Books are about content. Sure, there are some books you need to see on the printed page to truly appreciate, picture / coffee table / art / cookbooks, but for the vast majority of published items, it is all about the written word. If those words are going to have an impact, it can just as easily come from my Nook as a hardback or a trade paper. The form factor I chose, the content delivery method through which I consume Busy Monsters is irrelevant next to the words contained therein.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Jacob

    I want to follow up on something Angelina said. Owning an ebook reader, be it Kindle, Nook, iPad is a matter of privilege. I am also a Powell’s employee, and every day I talk to parents in low income houses who are buying books for their children. Many of these parents can’t afford to buy new copies of books. They are so appreciative of us having used copies of Dr. Seuss and Love You Forever. The problem with moving to a digital book industry is that we are leaving these folks out in the cold. We can sit in our upper-middle class, white homes and talk about how wonderful it is to be able to download every book we want in an instant over a glass of rose, but we need to remember the folks who are trying, in a world of television and movies, to teach their children to love the written word, who can’t afford to buy front list titles. Let’s think about others, instead of just ourselves.

  • Michael Thomson

    Strictly on the cost-benefit analysis, I think the article makes a lot of good points. But the culture of reading is being eroded, the culture of contemplation, the physicality the sacrality (to coin a word) of the printed page is not easily replaced by a medium that is crafted by technology better suited to the entertainment industry. Yes…for research…it makes things quicker. Unfortunately speed in the creation of well executed academic writing is NOT an advantage. In my own “field” (editor amateur that I be)… I can think of authors who crank out a book every six months fully making good use of the advantages of e-research. I can think of other authors who painstakingly don’t data-mine, but read and absorb, and research with desks piled high with paper and the bound page…I can tell you whose book will make a contribution that will affect the field and be oft quoted and which will be forgotten as fast as you can drag something to the electronic trash bin. The codex, as a vehicle for communication of serious thought or artistic writing has endured for millennia, and for good reason. As one cartoon putting it in techno-speak described the book: “The book is the new wireless platform…it’s got an intuitive touch based interface…the best thing…books work with the shelves you have at home.” I hope …if the codex dies… that it will not go quietly into the night. The culture of reading that the 21st century has been mercilessly assaulting on every front will eventually transform the printed page to something more akin to the web-page…complete with banners and hyper-links…sound effects and clips…and lost is the soft crinkly paper, the folded page, the musky smell of old books, and the value…I dare say… of the word itself. I may yet get an e-reader…I think I’ll have no choice, and I will enjoy its advantages. But if I can’t read the important literature in codex form, not just from nostalgia…but from the well-founded belief that sometimes more is less…there will be a sadness for the book culture that was — formed by lovers of literature and the printed word and replaced by technocrats. For now…I remain encased in a book-strewn office and I will rue the day all this is replaced by a low glare screen.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Izak du Toit

    It is rather difficult to read my kindle while in the bath. I use it mostly for academic purposes and reading the classics which you can get for free.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Mike Duffy

    I doubt that I know enough to contribute substantively to this discussion. As someone who is immersed in books daily, though, here are a number of things that came to mind as I read Jana’s essay and the comments.

    1. It is certainly the case that having a laptop, iPhone, Kindle, and iPad on which to read books marks me as being a person of privilege. Having money to spend on books and the time to read them are among the things that do the same.

    2. The lower prices of e-books almost never makes me buy them. I will certainly pay amazon’s $15 (or whatever) for the new Charles Finch mystery in November rather than buying it for $10 in its Kindle version. I want the “real” book — the one that exists apart from other entities (whatever that means) and can be treated as such things are.

    3. I treasure the conversations that can emerge from seeing a book in someone’s hand, on someone’s shelf, or on a side table in someone’s living room. E-books privatize our reading too much for me. I don’t typically feel comfortable saying to someone, “May I look through your Kindle book list?” in the way I do looking at someone’s shelves or noticing what is in their hand. “What are you reading?” is always an alternative, but it’s not the same. I do suppose I could use my Kindle to buy all the books I don’t want anyone else to know I am reading!

    4. I and many of my colleagues prohibit e-books in our classrooms, mostly because permitting them has proven to encourage students to be viewing or reading any number of other things.

    5. I buy almost no used books. They are, after all, used. This now circles back to number 1 above.

  • Pingback: Should the book industry fight for the printed book? « Digital Authors Australia

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Lamont Cranston

    No one is mentioning the elephant in the room which is book piracy. In a matter of minutes, you can download thousands of electronic books, more than you can ever read in a lifetime.

    Ereaders are not the industry’s salvation, but the atomic bomb that is going to blow it up.

    Unlike musicians which can make a living with concerts, seeing that they can’t with recorded music, authors won’t have such luck.

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  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Aaron

    “I can see no inherent advantage that print has over digital”

    Your inability to *see* is a shame. Myopia should never be held up as an advantageous trait.

    As an example, when is the last time your dead-tree book ran out of battery juice and went dark? Want to take your kindle for a two week hike in the mountains or to a secluded beach cabin? Yeah.. um… let me know how that works out.

    Eventually the portable energy problem will be solved by smart scientists and engineerers and web access will be ubiquitous. The bigger problem I see is your “publishers advantage” #3. For myself, and many others this is simply a deal killer. I don’t want to lease a book – I want to OWN it, with all the rights inherent in ownership.

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