In this month’s Wired, Clive Thompson pens an article titled “A New Hope for Books.” He writes, “Back in the 80s, the rise of word processors and email convinced a lot of people that paper [in the office] would vanish…We all know how that turned out. Paper use exploded; indeed, firms that adopted email used 40% more paper.” Clive makes the case that eBooks will analogously increase the demand for paper books.
There are two problems with this argument. First, the data is inaccurate. The Economist profiled American paper usage and found that per capita consumption of paper is decreasing, despite the about 2% annual increase in emails sent per day per capita. “Younger workers, who have grown up with electronic communication, feel less need to print documents than their older colleagues.”
Second, comparing email to books is a poor analogy; emails aren’t media. Books are media. So are CDs. The mp3 decimated CD sales, to the tune of a 57% decline over the last ten years. Similarly, newspaper circulation has contracted every year since 1945, with the advent of radio, tv, and internet.
Contrast these declines with Amazon’s success. In four years, Amazon’s total eBook sales surpassed print books. The American Association of Publishers reports that eBook sales are growing at 100%+ to 200% year over year. And in adult fiction, eBooks represent 14% of sales in 2010 by revenue.
There’s no question about it. The writing is on the [digital] wall for printed books.