Is this the triumph of print?

Is this the triumph of print?

'Digital is now as big a part of this industry as print'

There is a belief (and relief) now among some booksellers that the ebook "threat" is over. I have heard similar talk from senior buyers at supermarkets, who tell me that they have seen e-reader buyers switching to print books. 

So writes my good colleague Philip Jones, in his leader piece, Up, up and away, in the edition of The Bookseller just out on the stands today.

And in the issue's centerpiece, Print up as booksellers put digital 'threat' behind them, our Lisa Campbell, Kiera O'Brien, and Natasha Onwuemezi seem to tame Birnham Wood, fire no longer burning, cauldron no longer bubbling as our three wired sisters write:

Bricks-and-mortar booksellers have a "fantastic opportunity to seize the moment", with year-to-date print sales up for the first time in eight years. Figures from Nielsen Bookscan show sales of print books for the first 36 weeks of 2015 are up by 4.6 percent (worth £739.5 million) when compared to the same period in 2014, the first time the print market has seen year-on-year growth at this stage of the calendar since 2007.

That's Ron Johns they're quoting on the "fantastic opportunity" business. He owns four bookstores in England's southwest and he declares;

The ebook threat is evaporating before us. The print book seems virtually indispensable at this present time and booksellers have a fantastic opportunity here now to seize the moment.

Big article, many voices.

Could the unmentionable digital play be over? 

Or are we seeing the tragedy of giddy celebration play out, yet again, with classic imprudence, setting itself up for yet another pratfall on the cobblestones of hope?

Come to the oracle at #FutureChat and tell us. We'll be taking the vapors at the usual hour.


This story was written as the walkup to our #FutureChat of 25th September 2015. Join us each Friday live on Twitter at 4:00 p.m. London (BST), 3:00 p.m. GMT, 5:00 p.m. Rome (CEST), 11:00 a.m. New York (ET), 10:00 a.m. Chicago (CT), 9:00 a.m. Denver (MT), 8:00 a.m. Los Angeles (PT), 5:00 a.m. Honolulu (HAST).

'The new talk worries me even more'

Jones, you see, is cautious. 

Five years ago, the ebook was set fare to crush everything before it. The narrative has now reversed itself. Yet if I felt troubled by the earlier view, the new talk worries me even more.

And what a mighty wind the print partisans have felt at their backs with the announcement that the ebook subscription service Oyster—only two years old—would "sunset" itself. Atop all the platitudes and plateaus of naturally eased ebook sales growth (one does run out of early adopters, you know), it seems irresistible to some right now, they simply must get out on the high street to form a kick line of "I told you so" grins.

You worry that what comes to mind is that Onion satire of April 2011 about writers' bookstore appearances, Author Promoting Her Book Gives It Her All, Whether It's Just 3 People or a Crowd of 9 People.

Mofibo's Nathan Hull long has warned that judging all ebook subscriptions as the same animal is foolhardy. And now, he tells Onwuemezi for her Oyster's business model was 'deeply flawed' piece:

This story is no surprise, it’s been a long time coming. I just hope publishers don’t short-sightedly see this as an easy 'told you so' moment, simply because one service—with some fundamental issues—has closed. It’s time for the publishers to look at this as a lesson learned and then make educated decisions on who to back from now on to grow their business. It’s not the time to regress.

And what you find Jones writing has the ring of bad truth to it.

Mike Shatzkin, in his aria on the matter—with its typically long, Handelian headline, What Oyster going down demonstrates is not mostly about the viability of ebook subscriptions—points, as Jones does, to Alexandra Alter's New York Times piece, with its equally loquacious banner: The Plot Twist: E-Book Sales Slip, and Print Is Far From Dead.

Like Jones, Shatzkin seems to find the Alter piece less than convincing. Shatzkin writes the following and raises the specter so many publishers would rather not:

The New York Times this morning has a front-page article essentially reporting that the ebook surge is over, at least for now, and the print business appears stable. This is great news for publishers if the trend is real. Unfortunately, there were a few important points either elided or ignored that might have undercut the narrative.

One is that, while publishers report ebook sales as a percentage of total book sales steady or slightly declining, Amazon says (and Russell Grandinetti was quoted in the article) their ebook sales are going up. Assuming all this is true, is the difference perhaps sales migrating away from publishers (which sales would be reported by the AAP stats they rely on) and moving to cheaper indie titles available only through Amazon (which sales would not)?

What if it's not "over," as it were, but just "sales migrating away from the publishers"? This, certainly, is what the self-publishing chorale would have us believe.'s Data Guy has delivered himself of an unexpected coda to the September report he'd already produced, in which his chief finding among his estimates is:

5,643 authors in our longitudinal data set — or roughly 2.8% of the original 200,000 — whose Kindle best-selling ebooks appearing on Amazon best seller lists were consistently earning them $10K/year or better.

Slow down and get that. The siren site of the independent set is telling us now that more than 5,500 authors are earning $10,000 or better per year on their ebooks. Ebooks, not print. 

Do you buy it? 

And colouring-in, too

That kind of proposition makes sitting with Jones look more pleasant, even for the street dancing print partisans, doesn't it?

After all, he's the one willing to mention (shhhh) colouring-in books. (Some of us wonder what a "colouring-out" book might be.) These are print numbers, too, you know. Oh, gosh, lots of numbers on those colouring-in books, or -out. Shall we take their sales to mean that ebooks have fallen in?


The relief felt by booksellers is understandable: they have been unable to enjoy the ebook bounty banked by publishers and consultants. But digital is now as big a part of this industry as print—and for some authors and publishers it is the only business they are in. If two distinct markets are now developing, we would do well to acknowledge that both are important, and important to each other. This we know.

That's your cue. Join us for #FutureChat, when it's your turn to join the kick-line or question the choreography. Go into your dance.

Out, out, damned ebook.

Join us each Friday live on Twitter at 4:00 p.m. London (BST), 3:00 p.m. GMT, 5:00 p.m. Rome (CEST), 11:00 a.m. New York (ET), 10:00 a.m. Chicago (CT), 9:00 a.m. Denver (MT), 8:00 a.m. Los Angeles (PT), 5:00 a.m. Honolulu (HAST).

As we add more "Five-Minute Manifestos on the Future of the Book Business, our most recently published #FutureBook15 manifestos are:

Main image - iStockphoto: Roberts Rob