Amazon & E-Books: Inventing Their Own Trend?

Is this whole e-book thing a self-fulling prophecy of the mass-market, mass-media world? If so, what does it say about the quality of the text produced by the companies that service those markets, the role of such text in society, and the difference between a surplus of evanescent fascinations versus those vital works of prose and verse that one wishes to preserve and savor for the ages?

All the buzz about Amazon selling more e-books than hardcovers therefore seems curious. In terms of pure economics, I personally almost never purchase hardcovers because they’re too expensive, the ones I own are always used and cost less than $5 — or, on occasion, something I splurge on because it’s special and I want it to stick around.

Generally, I purchase paperbacks. Amazon’s press release neglected to note the number of paperbacks sold, which underscores the fact that while the phenomenon of e-books outselling hardcovers is “interesting,” it’s also a calculated effort to boost their own brand, their Kindle reader, and the cultural phenomenon they hope to make much hay out of.

Thus, one wonders whether the journalists and news outlets feverishly reprinting Amazon’s press release about the triumph of the e-book may be doing just that — reprinting a press release.

The New York Times did better than that, however, in noting that paperbacks were excluded from Amazon’s calculation, and that the press release itself is a volley in Kindle’s sales and psychological battle against the iPad:

“Amazon does not specify how paperback sales compare with e-book sales, but paperback sales are thought to still outnumber e-books …

“Analysts said Amazon’s announcement could assuage investors’ concerns that the iPad threatens Kindle sales. Amazon’s stock price is down about 16 percent in the last three months, in part because of those fears.”

What The Times doesn’t mention is what this cultural trend overall means. I know there’s plenty of prognostication about the death of bookstores and print books, but I think a lot of it is akin to feverish goading rather than actual cultural forecasting.

I spoke with a bookstore manager yesterday at an author reading, and asked how business was.

“We can barely keep up,” she said.

Does this boost her hopes about her shop surviving the Kindle?

“Remember,” she noted, “we only need to lose 25% of our customers to the Kindle to go under.”

It occurred to me that part of that phenomenon, however, was linked to the cost of their rent, for a shop centrally located on a chic and busy San Francisco thoroughfare.

One other thought — perhaps the boom in e-book sales is linked in part to what Clay Shirkey calls “Cognitive Surplus” … there’s lots of time, lots of ideas, lots concept,  text and easy-to-access, easy-to-create media in the world now. In his review on of Shirkey’s new book, Paul M. Davis notes that:

“It’s as easy to post a lolcat as it is to report breaking news; as immediate to share a photo with friends on the other side of the world as it is to show it to a neighbor.”

I will add a corollary to that relevant to e-books, to wit: Print books are complicated, expensive and in the mass-market context, quite disposable. They are in fact a form of cognitive surplus, and not necessarily a good form. Perhaps we have too many lousy books out there, pushed out too easily by commercial mills with profit, only profit, on their minds.

E-books are easy and a great place to dump the stuff that shouldn’t have been in print in the first place.

When something deserves to be in print, needs to be in print, the market and the means will remain. Perhaps not on the scale and with the profit margins that mass-market media corporations demand, but … so what?

As Ursula LeGuin pointed out in her Feb. 2008 Harper’s essay, “Staying Awake: Notes on the Alleged Decline of Reading”:

“I also want to question the assumption—whether gloomy or faintly gloating—that books are on the way out. I think they’re here to stay. It’s just that not all that many people ever did read them. Why should we think everybody ought to now?”

E-books, hardcovers, paperbacks … they’re all media with a place and a role in society. When something is important enough to end up in print, it certainly will. For the rest, the Internet is an accommodating host.

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