“The golden era of books is over.” So begins Jeff Bercovici’s post on Fortune.com before he — somewhat self-contrapuntally — goes on to list the top earning authors of the previous year, including James Patterson ($84 million), Danielle Steel ($35 million) and Stephen King ($28 million).
In fact, compelling as Bercovici’s woe-is-books lede is, the stat he uses to back it up – that sales of adult hardcover books are down 23% – is somewhat, well, silly. For reasons I’ve explained before, measuring the state of “books” based on the number of hardcover sales is like measuring the popularity of “music” based on how many people are buying cassettes.
Once upon a time, hardcover books were the only way that book lovers could read new titles. This allowed publishers to charge a premium for a product — a big, shiny hardback book — that actually isn’t much more expensive to produce than a paperback. Today, most publishers release the ebook edition of a new title at the same time as a hardback. Ebooks are a cheaper, more portable, quicker way for fans to get hold of their favourite author’s latest work so it’s absolutely unremarkable that hardcore book buyers are migrating to that format. Sure enough, hardback sales have dipped in the past 12 months but, in the same period, ebook sales have soared. In terms of both unit sales (up 4.1% from 2008) and revenue (up 5.6% from 2008), American publishers experienced a bumper year last year.
And the good news doesn’t stop there: thanks to the Kindle and the iPad, people who three years ago would never have strayed within 500 feet of a bookshop (and still wouldn’t) can now buy the latest James Patterson as easily as downloading Angry Birds. People who weren’t reading for pleasure, now are. This is good.
Even more interestingly, Amazon has extracted from amber the DNA of pamphlets and short stories (and maybe even serial novels) and given them a chance at new life in the form of Kindle Singles. A whole series of startup publishers — most notably Byliner, whose debut title Three Cups of Deceit made headlines in April — have launched to feed the reading public’s hunger for essays and long-form journalism in ebook form. Twelve months ago, long-form journalism was being kept alive on ventilators — today, it’s thriving on the Kindle Single bestsellers list. Hell, Ars Technica made $15,000 in a single day after publishing their review of some Apple thing or other as a Single.
So, yes, given that the publishing industry is thriving, new formats are emerging, dead formats are coming back from the grave and top flight authors are making tens of millions of dollars a year, it’s something of a stretch to argue that the golden era of books is over. Moreover, it’s considerably less of a stretch to argue that the golden era of books is now.