Friday, January 27, 2017

Hell, no! We won’t be disrupted!

Admittedly, I’m off my pace, which is 1-2 books per week, but I have always been and always will be a reader. Of late, I’m spending more time reading news (WaPo, NYT), and less time curled up with a good book. Still, I’m doing some reading, and can enthusiastically recommend The House By The Lake (Thomas Harding), which takes you through the history of 20th century Germany through the “biography” of a house by a Berlin lake. Lenore Myka is a friend, but even if she weren’t, her King of the Gypsies, a short story collection, is fabulous. I’m just getting into T.C. Boyle’s The Terranauts, and I think I’m going to like it just fine. And while I have put it aside – present times are too harrowing to read something harrowing – Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad is brilliant. My bedroom is stocked with books. Next up, Mary Roach’s Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War.

One of my biggest fears in life is not having a book to read.

Which is why I have somewhat gotten into Kindle, which is fabulous for travel,. Being able to download books anytime, anywhere means you’ll never have to be pounding the pavement in a “foreign” city looking for a bookstore that carries books in English.

But at the end of the day, I’m still a physical book person in a way that I am no longer a physical newspaper reader.

I like my books tangible. I like using bookmarks. I like nodding off for a nap with a book in my hand. I like book covers. I like books. Book books.

And, apparently, so do other readers, as I learned the other day from reading (online) “Books Stubbornly Refused to Be Disrupted, and It Worked” an article by Leonid Bershidsky that appeared on Bloomberg.

If the media industry needed proof that it moved too quickly to devalue its print products on the way to chasing digital audiences, the book industry has been making a convincing case in the last few years.

The rise of print book sales and decline in ebooks in 2015 was no accident. Last year, the trend continued, and self-publishing in electronic form no longer seemed as good a bet as in previous years. In 2016, the unit sales of printed books in the U.S. increased by 3.3 percent. That's not unusual, except this year, the publishing industry didn't produce any runaway bestsellers like 2015's "The Girl on the Train" by Erin Cressida Wilson, and only a handful of books, mostly from previous years, sold more than 1 million copies. (Source: Bloomberg)

We read so much these days about industry disruption. Industry disruptors. Industry disruptees. (And, baby, you do not want to be a disruptee. Buggy whips, anyone?)

I’m so happy to see that ebooking hasn’t managed to disrupt the print book industry that I don’t even mind that a good part of what’s keeping the print book industry going is nonfiction. Okay, I will never make the claim that most fiction out there is any good. I’m picky. And snobby. A lot of fiction readers just plain aren’t. (Harlequin Romance? Fifty Shades of Grey?) But most nonfiction isn’t a high caliber read like The House by the Lake or Grunts. It’s self-help books. It’s celeb insta-bios. It’s trash. And I may be wrong but I think there’s more bad nonfiction than there is bad fiction. (Please note: I’m not claiming an alternative fact here, and I’m not about sticking with a belief when that belief is contrary to all the evidence. My position is based purely on bookstore browsing over the years and gut feel.  In any case, if there’s more bad nonfiction, it may just be because proportionately, there’s more nonfiction in general. And, thus, in absolute terms, there will be a tendency to more bad nonfiction. Are you following this? I’m not sure I am…Bottom line: thank you, nonfiction for saving the book publishing industry from becoming a disruptee.)

If traditional book publishers accepted that the digital revolution meant a total overhaul of their business -- the way the music and media industries have largely done -- they would be locked in the same race to the bottom that those two industries have faced. The ease of digital self-publishing and readers' sense that digital books should be cheaper than paper ones have resulted in growing unit sales but falling revenues -- much like the audiences of major news media have snowballed since the turn of the century without a concurrent growth in revenue. On the digital side of book publishing, this "death spiral" is not only evident in the U.S. but also in more traditional markets, such as Germany.

According to some 2016 Pew Research cited in the article, in the US, 65% of the population had read a paper book in the prior year. Only 28% had read an ebook.

This may be mostly economics at play. You don’t need any special equipment to read a paper book. You need a device of some sort to read an ebook.

Still, I find it encouraging that people are reading book books.

Reading a paper book -- or listening to vinyl records, whose remarkable comeback continued last year -- is a statement, a human being's answer to being increasingly surrounded, and now even threatened, by machines.

It looks like many of us have an inner Luddite that needs to come up for air every once in a while. I may not have known it all along, but I sure did hope for it!

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