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Kindling That New Relationship Energy 20 March 2011

Posted by Camille Gooderham Campbell in Publishing Industry.
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Thanks to a Google alert on Every Day Fiction, I came across a forum thread today entitled “a new kindle user“. It was, shall we say, enlightening to see a discussion about e-books that wasn’t coming from a writing or publishing source or even a forum devoted to literary discussion — there’s plenty of noise out there from industry-involved people, but not so much from regular readers who don’t have a vested interest in the outcome of it all one way or the other.

Some of my favourite tidbits are:

  • “I haven’t bought a full-price book yet.”
  • “I made sure to tell her to look at the free list first, then she spotted some dollar books too.”
  • “I have only had my Kindle a week and i have read four books.”

Interesting stuff, in light of all the fuss about how e-book sales have shot up after Christmas due to all the e-readers received as gifts while print book sales have fallen.

So, clearly readers are snapping up the free and ultra-cheap reading material that e-readers have made accessible. Especially the classic stuff; who wouldn’t want a nice free e-version of Pride & Prejudice, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, or some handy Yeats or Shakespeare?

All the stats I’ve seen simply indicate that sales of e-books have skyrocketed since Christmas, but I haven’t seen any breakdowns between freebies, ultra-cheap “dollar books”, the still-pretty-cheap ones in the $3 to $5 range, the close-to-mass-market-price ones in the $6 to $9 range, and the “full-price” ones that pop over $10. Are any of these new e-reader owners buying e-books for higher prices? The ones where you can pay $30 for the just-released hardcover or get it in e-book form for $17?

More to the point, though, are these e-book sales still going to be through the roof in July? October? Next year? And will print book sales still be down once the economy recovers?

When I first got my Kindle (a couple of years ago now), I too went through an excited spell of purchasing books for it… Whee! Shop in bed, shop on the bus… wow, I can shop for books anywhere! But eventually the novelty wore off, until I got my iPhone… Oooh, look, a Kindle app! Oooh, I can buy a new book on my phone, what fun! And then the novelty of that wore off too.

That euphoric, impulsive feeling also happens when people are in the early stages of dating; it’s called New Relationship Energy. Sadly, it doesn’t last, much as we wish it would. With relationships, no one expects it to last — you enjoy it and make the most of it, and when it ends, you’ve either got a solid foundation for a lasting partnership or, well, you move on.

Isn’t it much the same with electronic toys? Don’t we dive headlong into the giddy fun of playing with a new phone or computer or music player, getting all of our preferences set up just the way we like them, justifying purchases of apps and software and cases or covers and other lovely add-ons because it’s all part of the rush? But those purchases aren’t indicative of long-term usage and purchasing patterns, any more than someone’s behaviour on a third date is going to be indicative of his or her behaviour as a partner three years ahead.

I don’t think we have enough data yet to define exactly how people are going to use e-readers and e-books through the coming years. They’re definitely a permanent part of the literary landscape and they aren’t going to go away (just as mobile communication devices aren’t going to go away, just as computers aren’t going to go away) but it’s a bit early to be pinpointing their permanent effect on readers everywhere based on that New Relationship Energy – I seriously doubt that the new Kindle owner who squeed about reading four books in his or her first week is going to continue to buy and read four e-books a week indefinitely.

My Kindle, on the other hand, is an old friend at this point. I still take it when I travel. I still buy the occasional e-book, usually something that I would previously have bought as a cheaply made bound-to-fall-apart mass-market paperback to read once. Its ability to subscribe to newspapers and blogs is nice. But I continue to add to my full-to-bursting real-world bookshelves as well, because once the fuzzy glow of newness wore off my e-reader, I remembered how much I enjoy print books too. I love the smell and feel of print books, and the fact that they can be signed and inscribed and treasured as objects of beauty as well as conveyors of words. I don’t mind curling up in bed with my Kindle, I’m well used to it by now and it doesn’t feel strange or unpleasant to me at all, but it doesn’t replace the familiar comfort of an old many-times-read book-friend or the crisp fresh-pages feel of a brand new print volume.

The good news is that, unlike with people, we’re not expected to choose only one forever. We’re not disrespected and called “alternative” (or worse) for enjoying the written word in multiple formats. I can have my Kindle and my print library too, and I suspect that I always will.

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