How eBooks lost their shine: ‘Kindles now look clunky and unhip’

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Books as objects of desire: photographs by Jennifer Cownie. Composite: Jennifer Cownie/@cownifer

Just a few years ago, the Kindle was being blamed for the death of the traditional book. But the latest figures show a dramatic reversal of fortunes, with sales of ebooks plunging. So what’s behind this resurgence?

Here are some things that you can’t do with a Kindle. You can’t turn down a corner, tuck a flap in a chapter, crack a spine (brutal, but sometimes pleasurable) or flick the pages to see how far you have come and how far you have to go. You can’t remember something potent and find it again with reference to where it appeared on a right- or left-hand page. You often can’t remember much at all. You can’t tell whether the end is really the end, or whether the end equals 93% followed by 7% of index and/or questions for book clubs. You can’t pass it on to a friend or post it through your neighbour’s door.

A few years ago, I was given a Kindle. I had become a student again. I was reading lots of books and I needed them cheap and light. But now the Kindle has slipped to the back of the desk drawer behind the Blu-Tack that comes out only at Christmas. Meanwhile, the stack of hardbacks and paperbacks on the bedside table has grown so tall it has spawned sub-stacks on the floor; when I get into bed at night, it is like looking down on a miniature book city. I don’t want to speculate about what goes on in other people’s bedrooms but I suspect it might be something similar, because figures published today by the Publishing Association show that sales of consumer ebooks have dropped by 17%, while sales of physical books are up 8%. Consumer spending on books was up £89m across the board last year, compared with 2015. So why is the physical book winning through?

Ten years ago, when the Kindle launched, the idea was miraculous. Here was the ability to carry hundreds of books enfolded in a tiny slip of plastic, countless stories in a few hundred grams. It seems hard to believe when you look at the thick, black plastic surround – stylistically it bears more resemblance to a cathode ray tube TV than a tablet – that it predated the iPad by two years. Within five hours, it had sold out, despite a price tag of $399 (then £195). A decade on, lay a Kindle next to a smartphone or tablet and it looks so much older, while the reading experience it delivers has scarcely progressed.

“It was new and exciting,” says Cathryn Summerhayes, a literary agent at Curtis Brown. “But now they look so clunky and unhip, don’t they? I guess everyone wants a piece of trendy tech and, unfortunately, there aren’t trendy tech reading devices and I don’t think people are reading long-form fiction on their phones. I think your average reader would say that one of the great pleasures of reading is the physical turning of the page. It slows you down and makes you think.”

Indeed, the take-up of tablets among book buyers has slowed since a flurry between 2012 and 2014, according to Steve Bohme, UK research director at Nielsen, which conducted the research for the Publishing Association. There are fewer new readers of digital books, and they tend to consume physical books as well. Oyster, the so-called Netflix for books, folded after a year.

Another thing that has happened is that books have become celebrated again as objects of beauty. They are coveted in their own right, while ebooks, which are not things of beauty, have become more expensive; a new digital fiction release is often only a pound or two cheaper than a hardback. “Part of the positive pressure that digital has exerted on the industry is that publishers have rediscovered their love of the physical,” says James Daunt, managing director of Waterstones, which published a special Christmas edition of Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent, more than 80,000 copies of which have been sold by the chain. (He, in common with most people involved with the publishing of physical books, reads on a Kindle, but afterwards buys the books he loves.)

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Young readers much prefer the immediacy of a book rather than an ebook. Photograph: Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images

“The physical book had become quite a cheap and tacky thing at the turn of the millennium,” Daunt says. Publishers “cut back on the quality of the paper, so if you left a book in the sun it went yellow. They were gluing, not sewing. They would put a cover on a hardback but not do anything with the hard case underneath. Nowadays, if you take a cover off, there is likely to be something interesting underneath it.”

And that something interesting is likely to gain traction on #bookstagram, a celebration of the aesthetics of books, where books are the supermodels and where readers and non-readers can see cats and dogs reading books, books photographed in landscapes, books posed with croissants, sprays of flowers, homeware, gravestones and cups of coffee, colour-matched and colour-clashed with outfits, shoes, biscuits and in what can only be described as book fashion shoots. You just can’t do a shelfie with an e-reader.

Physical books even feature in this spring/summer’s Fantastic Man magazine, which advises its fashion-literate readership to take five unread books to the sofa and spend five minutes with each one. “The difference between having read Proust for five minutes and for zero minutes is small, but it is also significant.” (This is how I’m going to crack my lifelong embarrassment about never having read Proust.)

Once upon a time, people bought books because they liked reading. Now they buy books because they like books. “All these people are really thinking about how the books are – not just what’s in them, but what they’re like as objects,” says Jennifer Cownie, who runs the beautiful Bookifer website and the Cownifer Instagram, which match books to decorative papers, and who bought a Kindle but hated it. Summerhayes thinks that “people have books in their house as pieces of art”. One of her authors’ forthcoming works features cover art by someone who designs album covers for Elbow. “Everyone wants sexy-looking books,” she says. She distinguishes these from “coffee-table books”, which is what we had before #bookstagram. This helps to explain the reinvigoration of independent bookshops, which offer a more styled, or curated, experience.

“We had a near-death experience,” Daunt says, referring to the recession. But, he adds: “When you come under pressure, you have to raise your game, and that’s what has gone on throughout the industry.”

There are other reasons for the decline of consumer ebooks. Children’s books, which represent an area of significant growth, just don’t work well on e-readers (although there are lots of children’s reading apps). Neither do young adult titles, even though this age group might be expected to opt for the most technological reading experience. Daunt’s children “can stick their noses in a book and they are lost in that book”. But when they try to read on a digital machine, “the allure of Snapchat pinging away, it’s a disaster. They think it’s a disaster.”

However, none of this is to say that digital publishing is the enemy of physical book publishing. At Forum Books in Corbridge, Northumberland, founder Helen Stanton has recently collaborated on a Silent Book Disco at the Biscuit Factory art gallery in Newcastle, where visitors could wander around and look at books (rather than works of art) while listening to an appropriate playlist. “A lot of my customers have bought e-readers and are now coming back to books,” she says; the shop is regional winner for the north of England in the Independent Bookshop of the Year category of the Nibbies. “We do a lot of events. We are really trying to connect readers with the author, to bring the book to life.”

Stanton is talking on the phone from a train down to London, where she hopes “to buy equipment” so she can do more silent book discos. Maybe, she says, customers could wander around the bookshop and hear poems at certain places on National Poetry Day. “It’s totally wireless, and if customers didn’t want to hear it, they wouldn’t hear it.”

Fuelled by the success of podcasts such as Serial, the rise of audio is one area of digital success, with downloads up 28%, according to the Publishing Association. Audio is becoming something of a new battleground in publishing, where audio publishers want to see books on submission at the same time as physical publishers, while physical publishers have become disinclined to acquire books without audio rights. In the US, the Audible Originals programme is commissioning new work – such as Tom Rachman’s interconnected short stories about Donald Trump – which is debuting in audio before print.

To complicate matters, some publishers of physical books are treating ebooks “almost as a marketing tool” before a book comes to print, says Summerhayes. One recent title, for instance, had little interest in its forthcoming print publication, so the publisher released it as an ebook for 99p. It began to sell, to be noticed and get reviewed. At which point the publisher went to the supermarkets that had previously spurned it and they took it up. (In music, this idea echoes how the first releases by artists such as the Weeknd and Frank Ocean were mixtapes given away online; by the time they released “proper” albums for conventional labels, they already had a big fanbase.)

The figures from the Publishing Association should be treated with some caution. They exclude self-published books, a sizable market for ebooks. And, according to Dan Franklin, a digital publishing specialist, more than 50% of genre sales are on ebook. Digital book sales overall are up 6%.

“It’s not about the death of ebooks,” Daunt says. “It’s about ebooks finding their natural level. Even in the years when ebook sales were rising greatly – and clearly cannibalising physical book sales – it was always very clear that we would have a correction and reach an equilibrium.” The UK, he says, has “adopted” ebooks and they will remain a substantial market (while in France, for instance, ebooks are only 3% of the overall market). The last thing he – or any seller or publisher of physical books – wants is the death of the ebook. “We want people to read. We don’t mind how they read,” he stresses. He knows that people who read, sooner or later, will buy books.

Paula Cocozza’s novel, How To Be Human, is published by Hutchinson at £12.99 rrp. To order for £11.04 with free UK p&p, visit bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846.

Author: Paula Cocozza
Twitter: @CocozzaPaula
Source: https://www.theguardian.com

The Man who Invented Bookselling as we Know it

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On James Lackington’s Temple Of The Muses, “The Cheapest Bookstore In The World”

Today, few people are likely to remember James Lackington (1746-1815) and his once-famous London bookshop, The Temple of the Muses, but if, as a customer, you’ve ever bought a remaindered book at deep discount, or wandered thoughtfully through the over-stocked shelves of a cavernous bookstore, or spent an afternoon lounging in the reading area of a bookshop (without buying anything!) then you’ve already experienced some of the ways that Lackington revolutionized bookselling in the late 18th century. And if you’re a bookseller, then the chances are that you’ve encountered marketing strategies and competitive pressures that trace their origins to Lackington’s shop. In the 21st-century marketplace, there is sometimes a longing for an earlier, simpler age, but the uneasy tension between giant and small retailers seems to have been a constant since the beginning. The Temple of the Muses, which was one of the first modern bookstores, was a mammoth enterprise, by far the largest bookstore in England, boasting an inventory of over 500,000 volumes, annual sales of 100,000 books, and yearly revenues of £5,000 (roughly $700,000 today). All of this made Lackington a very wealthy man—admired by some and despised by others—but London’s greatest bookseller began his career inauspiciously as an illiterate shoemaker.

One of 11 children, Lackington was apprenticed to a cobbler as a boy. He had no formal education, but at an early age he recognized the value of books, and he and his friends scoured the markets for cheap editions of poetry, plays, and classical literature in translation in order to teach themselves to read and expand their understanding of the world. Later, as a shoemaker, he moved to London with his wife, Nancy, and years later in his memoirs he describes how, upon arriving in the city, he spent their last half-crown on a book of poems, Edward Young’s Night Thoughts: “For had I bought a dinner, we should have eaten it tomorrow, and the pleasure would have been soon over, but should we live fifty years longer, we shall have the Night Thoughts to feast upon.” Shortly thereafter, in 1774, Lackington was able to rent his own shop, and he began selling both shoes and books together.

Late 18th-century London was a time of great social change. More people were learning to read, and the increase in leisure time among the working and middle classes meant an increased demand for books. But books were still an expensive luxury, and bookstores could be intimidating places. At the time, the typical bookstore did not encourage idle browsing or lounging. Lackington wanted to find a way to make books more affordable and accessible while still turning a profit, and with this in mind, he set about revolutionizing the book trade in at least four ways. His first innovation was to eliminate a staple of 18th-century commercial life: credit. He ran a cash-only business, which initially shocked his competitors and insulted some of his customers, but he reasoned that if he sold for cash, he could buy for cash instead of taking out costly loans; in this way he avoided interest charges as well as the losses incurred by customers unable to pay their debts. His second innovation had to do with his handling of remainder sales. The standard practice was for booksellers to buy large quantities of remaindered titles and then destroy as many as three-quarters of the books in order to drive up prices. But Lackington bought huge lots—sometimes entire libraries—and then drastically reduced the prices of all the books in order to sell them at high volume. In this way he kept books in circulation, made them affordable to a wider range of buyers, and turned a substantial profit all at the same time. Lackington’s third innovation will be familiar to anyone today who loves a bargain: he convinced his customers that they were getting a deal by refusing to haggle over prices. He posted this sign in his shop: The lowest priced is marked on every book, and no abatement made on any article.

By 1794, he had amassed a large enough inventory to move into a massive shop on Finsbury Square with his partner Robert Allen. He named the shop The Temple of the Muses, and above the entrance a plaque boldly announced: Cheapest Bookstore in the World. The Temple of the Muses became a tourist attraction, and this was Lackington’s fourth innovation: the sheer size of his bookstore—a spectacle that dwarfed all other bookshops of the time—made it a destination in itself. With a shop front 140 feet long, the cavernous lobby featured a circular counter with space for a mail coach and six horses to pass through. Above this counter, a staircase led up to “lounging rooms” where patrons could read beneath galleries lined with book-filled shelves, four floors in all. The higher patrons climbed, the cheaper and more tattered the books became. The poet John Keats spent many hours reading for free in the lounging rooms, and it was here that he met his first publishers, Taylor and Hessy, who worked in the shop.

As was common in the period, many booksellers were also publishers, and Lackington occasionally joined others in publishing ventures. Most notably, in 1818, Lackington partnered with Hughes, Harding, Mavor & Jones to publish a very small number (a scant 500 copies!) of an unusual novel by an unknown writer, Mary Shelley. The novel, of course, was Frankenstein. As a bookseller turned publisher, Lackington also published multiple editions of his own autobiography, in part because he was acutely aware that his reputation was at stake, since his success drew criticism from other booksellers. Some detractors argued that his catalogues exaggerated the quality of his stock, and others insisted that his wealth must have actually come from lottery winnings because it seemed impossible that he earned it from book sales alone. And still others accused Lackington of unfair competition; they argued that he controlled too great a share of the market and should “decline” his business, since he had already made his fortune. A similar argument can still be heard today; now that Amazon has begun opening brick and mortar stores (the first in Seattle in November 2015, with another to come in San Diego) some have asked if this is necessary or desirable, since the online retailer already controls as much as 60 percent of the book market.

And like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Lackington himself became something of a celebrity. A flag flew above The Temple of the Muses to let customers know when he was present in the shop, and he rode through the streets of London in a carriage inscribed with his motto: “Small profits do great things.” He even minted tokens bearing his image, which could be redeemed in the shop. A catalogue of his available stock was printed on a regular basis, and orders were filled for customers as far away as America. Lackington eventually sold the shop to his third cousin in 1798 and retired to the countryside to become a part-time Methodist preacher. Sadly, The Temple of the Muses was destroyed by fire in 1841 and was never rebuilt. Although the mammoth bookshop was not part of a chain of stores—the modern chain store would not be established until a decade later when A&P Supermarket opened its doors in America—Lackington’s innovations and his controversial practice of undercutting competitors through deep-discounts and high-volume sales continue to be part of the business model for large book chains and online retailers like Barnes & Noble and Amazon to this day.

Author: John Pipkin
Twitter: @john_pipkin
Source: http://lithub.com