As reported in the UK Telegraph newspaper under the shout line “e-book revolution will soon go into decline,” the Waterstone’s founder said, during a panel on the future of publishing at the Oxford Literary Festival, that he’d encountered “more garbage about the strength of the e-book revolution than anything else I’ve known,” but that in fact “the e-books have developed a share of the market, of course they have, but every indication – certainly from America – shows the share is already in decline. The indications are that it will do exactly the same in the UK.”
Well, are those indications in fact indicating what Tim (Timothy? Timmy? Timbo?) is indicating that they should indicate? For one thing, Waterstone seems to have been highly selective in his use of data – and the Telegraph doesn’t seem to have questioned it. What about the Nielsen survey of just a few days back showing UK ebook sales up 20 percent last year, against an overall slide in the total market?
And let’s not even get started on Waterstone’s total disregard for the phenomenon of self-publishing – not important, it seems, because it’s not a factor in traditional book sales figures. One of the most fascinating parts of Hugh Howey’s now-celebrated (or reviled) AuthorEarnings report was the part that didn’t deal with author earnings at all, but rather with aggregate sales figures at the best-seller level on Amazon. As Howey pointed out at the time, “distributors like Amazon and Barnes & Noble don’t share their e-book sales figures,” which means there is no basis at all for Waterstone to make a comparison. Traditional publishers might have seen a decline in their ebook sales, yes. But the awful truth behind that could be that, as Howey’s report asserted, “indie and small-publisher titles dominate the bestselling genres on Amazon. We can clearly see that the demand from readers for more of these works is not being fully met by traditional publishing.”
If I was a traditional publisher, that’s not the kind of reason I would want to see for a dip in my ebook versus print sales. But Waterstone is unfazed. “Print on paper has lasted for centuries. It’s one of the most wonderful, really successful consumer products of all time,” he declared in Oxford. “The product is so strong, the interest in reading is so deeply rooted in the culture and human soul of this country that it is immovable … The traditional, physical book is hanging on. I’m absolutely sure we will be here in 40 years’ time.”
For someone so enamored of the written word, I’m surprised that Waterstone describes it as “product,” but let’s let that pass for now. However, I do not want to let pass this assertion, once again, that interest in reading and ebooks are somehow opposed. Print book diehards and book world special interest groups aver time and again that the written word is insolubly wedded to their “product.” It’s not. That doesn’t mean that the printed book will die out. I agree with Waterstone that printed books probably will be around in 40 years’ time. And maybe, in the interim, God forbid, ebooks and self-publishing will have driven such interest in reading that both ebook and print book readership will have grown. Would that be so hard to envisage? Apparently for some.