Ebook sales on Amazon recently surpassed both hardcover and paperback sales combined. Many people see this as signaling the end of print books. But bloggers Christopher Hopper and Joanna Penn argue that physical books will survive – but only as collectors’ items. Hopper makes the comparison between print books and vinyl records. Vinyl is no longer a mass marketed produtc but instead appeals to a smaller niche audience of collectors. In fact, Hopper admits to not actually listening to the vinyl records he owns. He also has digital versions of his vinyl albums and listens to the music in this format mostly, on his Ipod or computer. But he still goes out and buys certain vinyl because of their collectibility.
Similarly, Penn talks about the future of print books as pricey, limited-edition, physical works of art. I think she gets it right when she makes a distinction between what she calls “consumable” books – i.e. books that are only read once and can be tossed – and the books that are held on to and revisted. The former mostly refers to mass market paperbacks and the purpose of these is to inexpensively convey the content of the book. If ebooks can do this mass market paperbacks will likely become obsolete once ereaders become more affordable and widespread.
I don’t however believe that print books will remain exclusively as collectors’ items and not be available at general bookstores, at least not for many years. Going back to the music industry analogy, if ebooks do follow the trend of digital music, it will be a while before they become dominant in outlets beyond Amazon. Ten years after the introduction of the Ipod, digital music still makes up less than half of overall music sales. Physical books aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.