Back in the print era, Laura Lippman worked as a reporter for the Waco Tribune-Herald and then for the San Antonio Light. I’ll always remember her story on a Rocky Horror Picture Show audience participation midnight showing.
For the past decade, Lippman’s been a bestselling mystery author for several years based in Baltimore. HarperCollins recently announced it sold more ebook copies than hard cover copies of her book I’d Know You Anywhere.
It’s a watershed moment. Things change and never are the same again.
At the time of that announcement last month, 11,250 Lippman ebooks had sold compared to 9,300 hardcovers. The hardcover costs $17.50 as of this writing on Amazon.com and $12.15 for the Amazon Kindle edition.
Some still believe ebooks will enhance print sales. This belief conflicts with today’s technical and economic realities we see (or refuse to see). The market has transformed.
Because of this transformation, I predict Harry Potter series will remain the top selling print book. I predict brick-and-mortar book stores will continue to shrink their book inventories and increase their coffee shop and gift accessories as they struggle to make the jump to the digital age. As publishers fight over the dwindling print book space like wholesale food industry fights over grocery store space, it’s impressive to see how much shelf space Lippman takes up in the typical Texas bookstore with her novels set in Baltimore (with the exception of San Antonio-set In Big Trouble).
You may remember the 1980s predictions of a paperless society within a few years when the personal computer exploded onto the market. However, those personal computers also brought huge sales of printers, and there was an explosion in the office supply market.
What we didn’t reckon was that you needed to grow a generation up on computers who prefer reading electronic words over print words. The Greatest Generation that was educated on the GI Bill is dying off. The Baby Boomer Generation struggles to adapt. But the Digital Generation is taking over. My son and his college friends read books, newspapers and magazines on their Kindles, iPads and phones. They search through and correlate more information within a few days than my generation did in semesters. With the exception of the business card, print continues to dwindle.
The economic forces are hard to argue against. Those of us who grew up with print and no digital access are a dwindling subset of the civilized world. You see it from the surviving newspapers whack their staffs with layoff after layoff. While at least one Texas newspaper has deemphasized its digital presence and poured resources into increasing its print circulation, I think it’s a misplaced moment. Whatever modest gains come in circulation of print, the increase in those who read digitally far outpaces that growth. The reading public is growing younger, and they want a screen that reacts to fingertouch. Touching newsprint just smudges fingers.
Perhaps these predictions, along with those pundits who predict the Chinese economy will swallow the rest of the world, will never materialize. However, it’s hard to argue against the economic force of the current technocracy. Short of a major catastrophe—electromagnetic pulse devices or some other major disruption of our increasingly redundant electronic environment, I don’t think it can be derailed.
Late at night, I reach for my phone to read instead of a book, and don’t have to turn on a lamp. When I look at the hundreds of books on my phone library, I realize I’d need a mansion lined with bookshelves if these were print books instead of ebooks. My gut instinct: print is dead as we knew it. It died before Lippman’s book sold more ebooks than hardback. Lippman’s book just bangs another nail in the coffin of remembrance.
I recently visited the Boston Public Library, then the Baylor Law Library. The vast majority in the library are on laptops. No piles of books sit on the tables. No sounds of turning pages disturb the air as these words sound in your mind.