People in publishing are wielding statistics against each other, in the perennial e-book versus print debate, and nobody seems quite sure of what they all mean. All the publishers I know assert that sales of e-books have plateaued and everyone is investing in print again.
In U.S. and British media, much has been made of the fact that recent stats show e-book sales slipping and print book sales slightly advancing or at the very least holding their own. Sony is no longer selling an e-reader. Amazon is opening physical bookshops. This has led to much gleeful crowing by opinion columnists who grew up reading paper books and are thrilled that the promised bookpocalypse never happened. They are saying, See? People were never going to turn away from the ancient sensual pleasures of paper after all; of course it is more pleasant and natural to hold a non-electronic object. Simon Jenkins, writing in the Guardian, fumed, "Virtual books, like virtual holidays or virtual relationships, are not real. People want a break from another damned screen."
There is a great deal of ideological bias at work here. Some people just really want e-books to fail. They just don't like them. Ugly as "virtual books" sounds, it is obviously absurd to say that reading on a screen is "not real." Nothing about words is real: They are all just words whether on a phone or on a wall and they can be equally powerful.
An interesting article appeared in Fortune last fall, questioning reports of the resurgence of print. Not so fast, said writer Mathew Ingram. Looking at U.S. statistics, Ingram said, you will find that they are hard to interpret. E-book sales may be down, but that is not good news for anyone: It may simply mean that the whole conventional industry is declining. And e-book sales may be stagnating simply because their prices have been obviously artificially high. (I agree with him: I suspect that once they normalize, to the indignation of novelists and publishers alike, sales will rise again.) He pointed out that these statistics are gathered only about mainstream publishers. What is not reported in the statistics is all the outsider writing: all the thousands of self-published novels and memoirs and self-help guides that are published, quickly and cheaply, in electronic form. Their success only continues to grow. And sellers such as Amazon are doing their best to provide these works directly to consumers, bypassing publishers altogether.
This is really an astounding truth, and it is more interesting and significant, I think, than questions of physical format. Personally, I don't feel too emotional about the paper/screen schism: I am happy to read in any form and both are convenient for different reasons. Self-publishing is on a constant rise in both formats.
I do feel a literary world filled with self-published insta-books is a different one. Our expectations of what a book is are not changed whether we read them on a page or on a screen. But our expectations of what constitutes a book are changed when we come to know that most available books are not essentially different from blog posts or social-media updates: They are not curated, not chosen by any gatekeeper, not even edited for the most part. They are not given any status by any expert, only by word-of-mouth or by self-promotion (often hard to distinguish between). As a result they come with no promises of being carefully researched or backed by scientific institutions. Self-published books are, for the most part, chatty. This leads to different expectations of what writing is. The self-promotion that must accompany self-publishing also leads to a new conception of what being a writer is.
There are larger ripples from this revolution. The literary media are now forced to pay attention to extremely popular phenomena, simply due to their societal impact, even if those don't spring from publishers or institutions and are intellectually uninteresting. (Fifty Shades of Grey, which we all had to talk about when it became a print book, many of us reluctantly, is still the best example of this.) The Internet has forcibly ripped us from our ivory towers.
So the medium for our reading – print versus screen – is a minor issue. The issue is what we will actually read. And, indeed, whether we will actually read. Because as more and more books are published, numbers of readers do not increase.