WSJ Predicts the Death of eBooks: Oh, The (Digital) Humanities!

book_ebook_phone_book_flickrcc_by_lynn_gardner[1]The Wall Street Journal is one of the best business newspapers out there, but when they try to cover a tech topic they tend to articles verging on the nonsensical.  You might recall the WSJ columnist who in August gave up on his Kindle because he forgot to charge it before a cross-country flight; today I have an article which argues that ebooks are a failed product niche simply because the adoption rate has slowed.

This article was written by Nicholas Carr, and it is based in part on the recent survey results released by Pew Research Center last week. He points to the detail that more readers have read a paper book than read an ebook and uses that as a basis to pretty much proclaim that everyone who is a proponent of ebooks is wrong.

Mr. Carr is quite fond of straw man arguments, and in fact he starts his article with one:

Ever since Amazon introduced its popular Kindle e-reader five years ago, pundits have assumed that the future of book publishing is digital. Opinions about the speed of the shift from page to screen have varied. But the consensus has been that digitization, having had its way with music and photographs and maps, would in due course have its way with books as well. By 2015, one media maven predicted a few years back, traditional books would be gone.

I'm not sure I know anyone who would have claimed that paper books are going away - not in 2012, in any case. Sure, some people thought that in the early days of the Kindle (2008, 2009) but I doubt that anyone really believed in that aspect of ebook hype past late 2009 or so. I know I did not.

Mr Carr also seems to like mis-characterizing the rise in popularity of ebooks in the past few years:

The initial e-book explosion is starting to look like an aberration. The technology's early adopters, a small but enthusiastic bunch, made the move to e-books quickly and in a concentrated period. Further converts will be harder to come by.

The reality is that an explosive growth in a market as people rush in to adopt a new product is not an aberration; it is a basic truism of economics. The point at which the rate of adoption slows down is called saturation (Wikipedia).

Yes, folks, this WSJ writer did not bother to consult Wikipedia while trying to understand the economics of the ebook market.

Mr. Carr goes on to mistakenly identify a particular literati subculture as being the only ones who read so-called literature:

Readers of weightier fare, including literary fiction and narrative nonfiction, have been less inclined to go digital. They seem to prefer the heft and durability, the tactile pleasures, of what we still call "real books"—the kind you can set on a shelf.

The problem here is that I know any number of people who read heavy-duty, dense books on ereaders and smartphones. That, and arguably it's a mistake to claim that a title identified as literary fiction is actually of higher quality than a popular novel like The Hunger Games (here's why).

But once Mr Carr gets past the weak arguments and misunderstood economics, he begins to reach the conclusion that many people in digital publishing figured out years ago:

E-books, in other words, may turn out to be just another format—an even lighter-weight, more disposable paperback. That would fit with the discovery that once people start buying digital books, they don't necessarily stop buying printed ones. In fact, according to Pew, nearly 90% of e-book readers continue to read physical volumes. The two forms seem to serve different purposes.

Welcome to 2009, dude. Once you have adjusted to the changes, perhaps you could join us in 2013? We don't have flying cars, but we do have Skynet.

And finally, Mr Carr closes out the article with a historical inaccuracy:

Having survived 500 years of technological upheaval, Gutenberg's invention may withstand the digital onslaught as well. There's something about a crisply printed, tightly bound book that we don't seem eager to let go of.

Um, Gutenberg didn't invent the book, or to be more exact he didn't invent the codex (the technical term for a book with paper pages, spine, etc). The codex dates to at least the first century AD (Wikipedia, again). Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press. Even if books had died out, I seriously doubt that printing presses would no longer exist in any form; they are used for far too many purposes besides printing books.

All in all, this is a disappointing article, especially coming from what used to be an august publication like the Wall Street Journal. Hell, I've done better, and the total sum of my writing training consists of just the few writing classes required to get an engineering degree from a state university.

Surely Nicholas Carr can do better.

image by Lynn Gardner

36 thoughts on “WSJ Predicts the Death of eBooks: Oh, The (Digital) Humanities!

    1. The problem with this bit of conventional wisdom is that this post is a takedown of a “real writer” who clearly has less credibility than Wikipedia. Does that mean we should no longer cite the WSJ as a source?

    2. Wikipedia is actually often a very good source, particularly if you pay attention to the references at the bottom. It is not an ideal reference, but it’s been shown in several studies to be as accurate as or more accurate than the Britannica, provided you are looking at articles that do not excite controversy (like political bios, abortion, celebrities, etc.)

      Its problem is not inaccuracy but rather the fact that you yourself can edit anything in an article and then use that change as a cite. Sort of undermines confidence.

  1. Good post, Nate.

    Coincidentally Nicholas Carr is on the advisory board of Wikipedia’s for-profit competitor the Encyclopedia Briticanna, and I can’t resist sharing a 2012 headline from the Guardian:

    “Encyclopedia Britannica halts print publication after 244 years”

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/mar/13/encyclopedia-britannica-halts-print-publication

    Adding to the fun, the Guardian quotes the Britannica prez’s justifications for digital:

    “‘I understand that for some the end of the Britannica print set may be perceived as an unwelcome goodbye to a dear, reliable and trustworthy friend that brought them the joy of discovery in the quest for knowledge,’ Cauz wrote in a company announcement. The product will improve, however, when it finally leaves the space constraints and black-and-white finality of print behind, he said.”

    Granted, this is a reference work, but then Carr has conceded the appeal of E for “disposable” fiction–and perhaps someday he will be more appreciative of the virtues of updatable nonfiction in general, through greater interactivity if nothing else. The power and form factor of tablets, as well as new technologies like improved speech recognition, can only help in the long run. Even now, tablets are my main e-reading tools. As for literary fiction, distinctions between paper and electronic books will be rather meaningless in time–when, for example, refined E Ink arrives with greater contrast, physically flippable pages and other goodies.

    Happy New Year,
    David

    (Mostly dictated on an iPad)

    1. I’m not sure it’s fair to hold the EnBr news against Carr; he is only one person on the board.

      But as for literary fiction, I think he’s mistaken on that point as well. I’ve updated the post to include a challenge on that point.

    2. Britannica was helped along to its grave by a dipshit who also brays about what he thinks the future of eBooks and publishing is. Having seen his record just with Britannica, he should just STFU and go away.

  2. Gutenberg’s primary invention, moreso than the press, was moveable type. WSJ’s invention is turning a once-great journalistic enterprise into the print equivalent of FoxNews. Wonder how that happened?

        1. Sure. And what was the object of their games? Eyeballs!
          So far nobody on the web has started a war to get pageviews but they have started their fair share of witch hunts.

  3. WSJ is owned by News Corp, parent company of HarperCollins, which means it has a huge interest in maintaining the print status quo, which renders pretty much anything it says with regard to publishing (or anything else, for that matter) utterly moot.

    1. And (conspiracy theories aside), there’s the crux of the problem. I agree. The once exemplary and unassailable WSJ has fallen from its lofty pinnacle into the News Corporation muck. How a single man could bring down the credibility of an entire network and a once-proud newspaper like the WSJ is the fodder for a sad chapter in our once-proud nation’s history. Under Murdoch’s thumb, journalism has reached a new low. How much lower can it take us?

      As to the growth of the eBook industry, I expect that Moore’s law will apply to this emerging industry as well. Of course, Murphy’s law might rear its head and we’ll find us without anything electronic in the years to come where only carefully handled paper books will survive. That’s why I publish both print and eBook versions of my trilogy “The Owl Wrangler”. ;)

  4. This article reads like a weird form of sour grapes. Someone who loathes ebooks waits until the rate of adoption slows and then says “Nah-nah! Told you so!” I know plenty of people who don’t read ebooks, but unlike this guy, they aren’t snobs about it. The weighty, literary fiction reference is the giveaway here. If you keep books of your shelf more to show off what you’re reading than anything else, of course you’re not going to like ebooks.

  5. Good post, Nate. Others have covered most of what I was thinking as I read it (notably Mike’s link to the Discovery article), so I will just add one point.

    When I was young, the English department at Oxford took the position that the literary value of a book could not be judged in the years immediately following publication. So they did not teach or evaluate the literary merit of books until 50 years after publication. While that was a bit extreme, it was I think also very valid. Best sellers (to the “literary” set) get hyped all to heck in the years right after their release, but let a few decades pass and it becomes pretty obvious that most of them have contributed little or nothing to society.

    The real literature, the books which can still stand up and be counted decades later, are quite often _not_ the ones touted as “great literature” by the Nicholas Carr’s ( or PWs) after their release.

    I’m betting (won’t be around to see this) that 50 years from now, a lot of what is then considered truly great literature from this era, will turn out to be books which were released in digital form, not print.

    Print won’t go away? Not entirely, but I think it will mostly fade away as costs rise, print runs get shorter and shorter, and physical retail outlets for it disappear. My Dad didn’t think typewriters would go away – there was something special about writing on paper…

    1. >>>are quite often _not_ the ones touted as “great literature” by the Nicholas Carr’s ( or PWs) after their release.

      Raymond Chandler was ignored and dismissed in his lifetime. He is still read while all his contemporaries who were lauded with best-selling status are just about forgotten today — and mostly out of print too.

  6. I’m unconvinced that the p-book is going to remain as anything but a niche product. It’s a question not of how much readers do or do not like paper but of economics.

    I just published a short post-Sandy “instant book,” Home Generator Guide 2013, in both Kindle and paper (CreateSpace) forms. The Kindle is priced at $3.99 and the paper version at $7.99 — and I get $0.15 more per Kindle sale. I have to presume that this is fairly representative of costs, and if that’s right it spells doom for p-books. It seems that the publishers are protecting their print book sales by taking large rents on the e versions — and rents are a magnet for competition. The industry tells themselves that their problem is Amazon, but if Amazon didn’t do it, someone else would. You just cannot leave large sums of money lying on the table and assume that no one will come to pick it up.

    The book has been on sale for only a few days so I don’t have very conclusive sales statistics, but so far the e-book sales outnumber the p-book sales by more than 5:1. That’s consistent with my notion that the price elasticity of demand for books is substantial, meaning that by embracing and reaping the economics of e-publishing the book industry can reasonably hope to see more rather than less overall sales. The problem of course is that p-publishing firms fear that they will not survive the transition, dragged under by their fixed costs.

  7. Having done most all of my reading in the last year on my Kindle (and new Paperwhite), I did recently pick up a paper book. It did have “heft” all right, and so was more unpleasant to hold up in bed. When I began I noted the small font (to my 60 year old eyes) and actually went to adjust the size before remembering. Then I was reading in bed when my wife turned out the light and my book didn’t even light up! And I actually once touched a word to look it up before I realized the primitive nature of the medium I was perusing.

  8. This article … sigh. Quoting Wikipedia as an essential source instantly destroyed the author’s credibility as being any kind of informed expert or educated, worthy critic. The rest of it only strengthened my opinion. So now I’ll save the WSJ article for reference in my marketing plans and ditch reading any more spoutings by this author.

    1. IMHO, just because something is in Wikipedia does not make it less true, factual and correct–assuming the content has been peer reviewed. How is the written-in-an-academic-vacuum Encyclopedia Britannica more credible? Invariably, it was always a good source for historical accounts but any scientific subjects were dated almost before the ink was dry. And the historical accounts were written from the editor’s point of view. Who’s to say these were comprehensive and accurate accounts? When someone posts an account of how the earth was created in 6 days, does that make it accurate? Give me a source that provides a variety of opinions and points of view from everyone in the room and while I’ll still have to decide what accounts to believe, at least I’ll know there are other points of view to consider.

  9. Looks like Nicholas Carr just needed to hack out an article. I’m often skeptical of opinion pieces in the WSJ or NYT. Agree or disagree with him, the primary purpose of the article is to get people talking about Nicholas Carr. At least this confirms – for some – just to avoid future writings by Carr.

  10. “… Death of eBooks…” Perhaps wishful thinking for some, but like it or not, we live in a fast evolving technology centered world and growing more and more dependent on it. I have seen students and even kids moving from computers to tablets for school work, research printing reports, reading ebooks, emailing homework, texting classmates and teachers and even using tablets as a phone, not to speak of social networking and sharing work files. I love printed books but as I get older, I find digital content like eBooks/eZines, music, video, web content to be fast and convenient.

  11. I once read an article about the “birth” of the convenience store. It pointed out that there were substantial differences between the convenience store model and the old, corner stores that existed before large grocery store chains. Because of those differences, the article argued, convenience stores would never survive the test of time.

    We all know how that worked out.

    Print books, in some form, will exist for a very long time. But I don’t believe it will be forever, unless those remaining print titles cannot be duplicated digitally in a practical way–such as large-format coffee table or reference books–or unless those print books are essentially collectibles. Artifacts, if you will.

    We still meet people all the time at our appearances who love print books. Heck, WE love print books; our house has over 5,000 of them. eReading.com will sell them, too. But ebooks are here to stay, that much is certain.

    Yes, ebooks have reached a certain saturation point, but in my opinion it is just the first of many. Every holiday season, tablets continue to be more popular than ever, and with those sales, ebook sales jump in volume, too.

    Just like those convenience stores, ebooks provide something fast and convenient. But more importantly, ebooks–just like print books–are a great value, and being able to carry thousands of them around everywhere you go is simply priceless.

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