Kindle Outsells Paperbacks

by Mark T. Mitchell on January 28, 2011 · 22 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Short

According to reports, Kindle books now outsell paperbacks on Amazon, and the Kindle itself is the hottest product Amazon sells. Perhaps this is the wave of the future. I must admit to never wanting one. I held one once, but wasn’t much impressed. When they come out with a Kindle that exudes an old book smell, offers the tactile feel of good paper on these fingers (including the possibility of a paper cut), and makes the softly pleasant sound that pages make when turned, then I may reconsider.

Of course, this statistic is specific to Amazon and perhaps doesn’t represent the world of books as a whole. Nevertheless, newspapers are falling victim to online competition. Will print books one day be replaced by e-books? Will anything really be lost other than the aesthetic elements that some prefer? Does the Kindle change the way we read so that what we read is in the process changed? If no, then the difference between the two modes is merely one of delivery. If yes, the differences could be significant and warrant serious consideration. In a Neil Postman vein, does the Kindle reflect a new and exciting facet of the print culture or does it represent the intrusion of the electronic image culture into the world of print?

{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Stewart Kahn Lundy January 28, 2011 at 10:27 pm

One thing this statistic fails to reveal is that paperback sales INCREASED this year. eBook sales are in ADDITION to the regular “real” book purchases. What this statistic really indicates is that more is being read.

Is it good to rely on something that requires fossil fuels for transport, trees to be cut down, and decay? eBooks are potentially far more sustainable and permanent.

Kindle DOES change the mode of reading, but in ambiguous ways. For example, one can use a notebook companion for notes: http://www.amazon.com/Moleskine%C2%AE-Reporter-Style-Notebook-Display-Generation/dp/8862935293 … this both looks and feels like a book, but provides additional tools. One can also click on a word via Kindle and it will display a dictionary definition — a very nice feature. But words are still just words. Reading words on this website doesn’t change that, and the “significance” of different media is grounded in an exaggerated emphasis on words. The entirety of the liberal arts, for example, is now verbal. The only elements that were ever non-verbal were astrology and music (and music only taught the verbal theory of music). What really changes in language is when spoken words suffer a death by being written.

It is possible that print books can (and should) be replaced by ebooks, as Gutenberg helped replace the handwritten books before. The debate is similar. eBooks may possibly be our Gutenberg Event. Suddenly, not only the rich could own a book, but the rich could own a library. Now, not only can the rich own a library, the poor can own a library.

Kindle is another mode of print, which is another mode of spoken language which has died. Books are mausoleums filled with dead moments. The point of mausoleums is not the corpse, but the empty tomb — the living truth. The truth written words attempt to reveal is never the words themselves… or rather, words are never and can never be the Word.

avatar Samuel January 28, 2011 at 10:55 pm

In a quick reply to a notably minor point of your comment, Mr. Lundy: Yes, print media requires trees to be cut down, and some form of fuel to be transported. Yes, they decay. Electronics, one should note, require a far more destructively involved process of resource extraction to be manufactured, including oil, as well as many other harmful elements. High-tech industry may change the way resources are used an allocated, but there are very serious doubts that it will change the degree to which they are used.

It’s also worth mentioning that the medium has a far greater effect on the message than you imply here. Marshall McLuhan spoke at length on the mere transformation that takes place concerning how the message is received when the form is significantly altered. You and McLuhan both have suggested that where print media was a step away from the power of spoken word, electronic media may in fact be a step back — but McLuhan, unlike yourself, reneged that observation near the end of his life, stating later that the electronic universe was “an unholy impostor.”

The immediacy of access and the alacrity and expediency to which we are guaranteed to produce and process it through the electronic form displays its negative tendencies quite well when we look at the conflagration of “twitter” language on the internet. It doesn’t bring us any closer to the spoken word, and it does not merely replace an ink-pen with an e-ink display or a keyboard. Language itself is diminished, as a human being is far more inclined to write at length and with attention to detail when he is forced to be intimately involved with the process. You “take time out of your routine” to write a letter — you don’t an email. These effects are too worthy to glaze over, and they translate to our reading of literature in predictable ways.

I understand your advocacy, but I must admit: the tone of your comment sounds frighteningly close to advertising revelry.

avatar Stewart Kahn Lundy January 28, 2011 at 11:30 pm

“Advertising revelry”?

The decay undergone through electronic communcation have been made manifest. This is far from discourse indeed.

avatar Samuel January 28, 2011 at 11:47 pm

Mr. Lundy, there was no contumely intended in that remark. I’m sorry that suggesting the tone seemed too celebratory to me renders my whole comment, which I intended to be a sincere remark expressing real concerns, something beneath discourse.

avatar Samuel January 28, 2011 at 11:49 pm

And thank you.

avatar Franklin Salazar January 29, 2011 at 12:10 am

Our walls are lined with book shelves full of books worth reading. My children are surrounded by them, seeing them, touching them, and reading them. They are part of their life and help make the intellectual life real to them.

They are cultural formation.

avatar Jenny Bordeaux January 29, 2011 at 12:53 am

This is a surprisingly ingracious response, and for no obvious reason…

avatar Alfredo January 29, 2011 at 1:54 am

Good luck with those Kindles when the electricity goes out or when they die; good bye to all of your books.

avatar Gene Callahan January 29, 2011 at 2:14 am

“Electronics, one should note, require a far more destructively involved process of resource extraction to be manufactured, including oil, as well as many other harmful elements.”

Yeah, but one kindle can replace a couple of thousand books.

avatar Rob G January 29, 2011 at 6:30 am

There seems to me to be an inherently consumeristic and narcissistic aspect to e-readers and e-books. A flattening takes place in which all texts, from a marketplace standpoint, take on a similarity of sorts, like a bad Oriental buffet where all the food tastes the same, but where “we can have it all!” I’m always suspicious of such flattenings, as they tend to the erosion of good taste and the dumbing down of the culture.

avatar Sean January 29, 2011 at 1:57 pm

The thing that sticks in my craw when considering the vaunted merits of digital “books,” is the impermanence of all digital media.

In the simplest terms I can conceive: will our kids inherit our kindles? It doesn’t seem likely. Why invest in a library that is non-transferable and has no real, material existence?

I inherited my father’s books and my grandfather’s books. I would be doing a disservice if I did not leave my children a library that they, in turn, could pass on to their children.

avatar Dod January 29, 2011 at 2:01 pm

This exchange is a perfect illustration of communication technology’s blessing/curse. That Samuel and Stewart Lundy could have this exchange is a potential gift to them both as well as the lurkers….were they to have it “face to face” I’m almost positive this irritation/misunderstanding would have never arisen or passed unnoticed by more substantive matters.

avatar John Médaille January 29, 2011 at 2:34 pm

I must confess that I like reading books in electronic format. I like being able to highlight and make notes which can be searched and recalled, and I like being able to search books for a word or phrase. It is a great convenience for research.

I don’t like the proprietary formats of the readers, because they prevent us from having one device to read everything.

Socrates protested the introduction of writing as the end of memory, and I am sure the copyists protested to introduction of printing compared to the beauty of manuscripts. It is likely that someone disliked the switch from scrolls to the codex, and the Jews still insist on the scroll for their liturgy. Each change does have a meaning. Judaism would be impossible without the scroll, Christianity would likely be very different without the codex, and (although some will object) Protestantism impossible without cheap paper and the printing press; after all, “every ploughman” cannot interpret the Bible unless he has one. But I have an intuition that the new media will be kinder to Catholicism, for various reasons, not the least of which is that it allows us to “illustrate” our manuscripts in new and interesting ways.

avatar Anonymous January 29, 2011 at 3:52 pm

Those commentators who note the relative permanence of books are well advised. I’m willing to grant that the Kindle is in many respects a superior medium for reading books here and now; John’s comment suggests as much. And I appreciate the ratio Gene Callahan proposes; surely this ratio seems especially suitable for newspapers, i.e. one kindle could replace a couple year’s worth of print newspapers.

But does anyone believe that Kindle is the permanent medium for electronic books? Aside from the just comment that these things require batteries, they also require a willing service provider and a suitable file format. These three elements each imposes a potentially serious limitation, with the last being perhaps the most ominous, because the most reminiscent of the 8-track and the cassette tape.

My impression — which is nothing more than an impression — is that the marketing of the Kindle makes it a complement rather than a replacement to the print book; this may become all the more evident as digital formatting continues to be the means not only of distributing digital text via Kindle, but of fulfilling print-on-demand orders, which are almost certainly the wave of the present and future for most publishing houses.

avatar John Médaille January 29, 2011 at 4:53 pm

James, here I think you bring up a real prudential problem, namely that while the technologies necessary for books and manuscripts are within the reach of most cultures, the technology of electronic ephemera are reachable only by a few very advanced cultures. And while culture is a permanent feature of being human, any given culture is not, and they all pass. When ours passes, will it leave any artifacts behind?

avatar Jeffrey Polet January 29, 2011 at 5:19 pm

That’s exactly right. Print-on-demand is definitely the way publishing is going.

avatar Artie January 29, 2011 at 11:19 pm

I too wonder what Neil Postman would have thought about the Kindle, and by extension all the touch-screen devices like the iPad. I suspect that he would have viewed the devices as he would television, in that he would feared that the iPad will “amuse us to death” with its array of entertainments and formats.

Still, I like of the idea of a hi-res, DRM-free reader. Would love to have had one back in my college days doing research on microfiche and and microfilm in the library.

avatar Rob G January 30, 2011 at 5:58 am

Good point, Artie. I was thinking the same thing about Postman. I’m inclined to agree with Mr. Wilson that e-readers can serve as a complement to print books, just as texting is a complement to talking on the phone. Neither are “necessary,” however, and in a sense are superfluities. Just as I don’t text, I won’t be getting a Kindle anytime soon.

One must also take note of the consumerist aspect here — we should all be wary of the push to acquire the latest gizmo, even if it’s one that benefits us.

avatar John January 30, 2011 at 10:00 pm

I wonder what Mortimer Adler would have thought. I have never tried a Kindle, but my AP Lit and Comp students and I have iPads and attempt to read etexts by way of iBooks. Naturally, being children of the tech revolution, they find it very cool. I find myself wishing I had a margin or blank page to take notes on, and I can stare at the screen for only so long before I begin to feel uneasy and get the urge to use an old fashioned highlighter on the screen and then pen a note and an arrow in to the “margin.” When I first read Adler’s “How To Mark A Book,” I realized that was how I read and why, much to my wife’s dismay, I never go to the library. They won’t let me write in their books. Another good reason why American secondary school students should perhaps be required to buy their textbooks-so they could learn how to really get the most out of them…but I digress.

I think that both Postman and Adler would take a dim view of this latest technological trend which merely amuses us, satisfies our consumerist fetish with gadgets, and gives the appearance of literacy and denies the substance thereof.

avatar Artie January 31, 2011 at 1:01 am

It would be a poorly designed e-reader that would not be able to back itself up on other media. The beauty of digital media is that it can be cloned forever without losing any information. You’ll never have to say good bye to all your books, unless of course there’s an electromagnetic pulse within fifty miles or so, in which case all electronic media will be destroyed. Or a virus that attacks the e-reader’s operating system. The beauty of paper media is that it is totally immune to EMP and viruses..

avatar SarahL January 31, 2011 at 1:24 am

I like writing in my books, too. While I do go to the library an awful lot to pick up books for homeschool reading, I don’t feel that a book is truly mine unless I can write in it – and in doing so not only carry on a conversation with the author but also help myself make connections between what I’m reading and what I already know. My husband has warned me a few times, “If you write in it, you won’t be able to sell it when you’re done with it,” but I’ve found that when I’ve had a conversation with the author of a book, even when I disagree with him, I’m much less likely to want to sell the book anyway. I do skim over the book (size it up, I guess) before I undertake an active reading of it, and if I’m not drawn into a conversation with it, I’ll probably sell it. Once I enter the fray, the book is mine.

This is also why I’d rather buy a hardcover book or novel that has been written in by its previous owner but is still structurally sound than a cheap paperback that probably won’t survive an active reading. Besides, it can be interesting to listen in on someone else’s conversation with the author (by way of their notes).

avatar Artie January 31, 2011 at 3:01 pm

For all the talk of Neil Postman here, I think there’s some media/message conflation going on. The e-reader is not the message. The e-reader is to books what the record player, CD player or i-Pod is to music – a device for reproducing a work of art. The e-libraries of the future won’t be literally in the e-readers of the day, they will be server farms and DVDs full of files to load and read on one’s e-reader.

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