Nicholas Carr has just put up a post on his blog that picks up on the coverage of the Association of American Publishers data showing growth in the U.S. ebook market of only 5 percent in the first quarter of 2013. Carr takes this, alongside other Nielsen data already reported in TeleRead, as confirmation that the ebook market is both slowing and changing.

“The anemic growth of the electronic market calls into question the strength of the so-called ‘digital revolution’ in the book business,” he states. “E-books now represent a bit less than 25 percent of total book sales. That’s a healthy share, but it’s still a long way from dominance.”

I’d disagree on a number of counts. First of all, the AAP data is based on submissions from 1192 publishers. That is a very healthy sampling of the U.S. publishing industry, but it presumably leaves out self-publishing, which as we all now know, contributes a fair chunk of American bestseller lists. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see less of an ebook sales decline in figures that aren’t reported by publishers. And ebooks’ rise to dominance may be continuing more strongly than the AAP figures suggest.

Also, it depends what you mean by the digital revolution, and what your expectations of that are. Carr seems to be writing against a stereotype that I don’t think anyone beyond a few wild-eyed futurists and alarmists ever seriously expected – total replacement of printed books (and print publishers) by ebooks.

“We may be discovering that e-books are well suited to some types of books (like genre fiction)  but not well suited to other types (like nonfiction and literary fiction) and are well suited to certain reading situations (plane trips) but less well suited to others (lying on the couch at home),” Carr claimed earlier. “The e-book may turn out to be more a complement to the printed book, as audiobooks have long been, rather than an outright substitute.”

I’d argue more that the ebook is perfectly suited to literary fiction and non-fiction, but not best suited to highly visual coffee table non-books, but the point is well taken: ebooks don’t have to be an outright substitute for printed books. But they don’t have to be that to revolutionize publishing and the book world all the same.

Take self-publishing once again, which has made a huge difference not only to book sales and consumption, but also to book production and writing. I’m not sure how much that matters to publishers and commentators on publishing, but it matters hugely to people who write books. Writing has been revolutionized. Surely that is far more important than anything that could happen to publishers. It certainly affects far more people more directly, changes more lives, and alters culture far more than what might happen to the publishing industry.

Also, publishers’ own economics are pushing them towards the ebook model. As noted in TeleRead, they actually can make more money more efficiently out of ebook sales than they can out of print. That’s going to pull them towards ebook publishing more and more, to the detriment of booksellers and print book fans – but then whoever said that the Big Five were charities, eh?

So don’t expect the revolution to be over just yet. One swallow doesn’t make a summer; one lobster doesn’t make a Thermidor.


  1. Thee numbers sort of follow the declilne in book sales generally, don’t they? Less books being sold probably means lees eBooks as well. That is a whole different matter. As well, I have noticed very current books now appearing again in library eBook lists, and I have used that over buying in several instances again. (Glad I did, I would hae returned some of them anyway, they were just that bad despite the hype.)None the less, could that be a factor? Or people jsut reading less? Or have they re-discovered the joy of a real paper bound book, as I did recently?

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