Pando

Desperately seeking disconnection? eBooks continue to fall against print books

By Paul Bradley Carr , written on June 28, 2016

From The Books Desk

Beware anecdotal evidence, but I noticed a curious thing during my week off in Palm Springs.

I was staying at the Ace hotel -- a favourite with hipsters from the Bay Area and (even more so) LA. Around the pool, selfies abounded -- duckfaces, shots of toes dangling from sunbeds, the usual tropes. This was not, I’m trying to emphasise, an elderly crowd.

And yet, as I looked around the poolside, I saw copies of The Girls and After You and even a brave soul leafing through a James Baldacci. What I didn’t see was a single Kindle. For the rest of my trip I made a point of looking -- at the pool at the Hyatt down the street, in Starbucks, and at the airport. I saw a total of one e-reader, and that was in the hands of an elderly woman sitting in the departure lounge.

I was also careful to note, at the pools and Starbucks at least, how people were holding their phones. There’s a way you hold your device when you’re paging through text, vs quickly checking emails or updating a Facebook status. As far as I was able to determine, this wasn’t simply a case of mobile e-reading having replaced dedicated devices. People were checking social media on their phones, and then returning to their print books.

My takeaway was that, for all the hype and doom and imminent demise of Barnes and Noble, electronic reading of books seems to have dropped and print reading has resurged. Again, though, beware anecdotal evidence.

As it turns out, according to data published this week by the American Association of Publishers, I was half right. According to the latest figures --- from January of this year -- hardcover book sales are down 14.9% compared to the same period in 2015. Those numbers are slightly at odds with Nielsen Bookscan figures which showed a modest 7% rise in hardcover sales for the same month.

And yet, compared to print books, ebooks were way down. Nielson doesn’t track ebooks but the AAP’s numbers show a 25% drop in ebook sales for January. The previous month the difference was even more dramatic. According to Publishers Marketplace:

Among adult book formats, trade paperbacks rose by $32 million and mass market paperbacks rose by $16 million, but ebook sales fell $38.5 million....

As we watch the shitfest that is the UK’s Brexit and the turdcrash that is Donald Trump’s Presidential campaign, it’s not easy to get enthusiastic about trends which show consumers rejecting modernity for a return to a bygone era. But perhaps those same signs of the impending apocalypse also explain why more and more people are choosing to disconnect completely from the world, even if just for a chapter or two.