Reading Disruption

August 13, 2014

A technological visionary created a little stir in the late ‘00s by declaring that the era of the paper-and-ink book as dominant cultural form was winding down rapidly as the ebook took its place. As I recall, the switch-off was supposed to be complete by the year 2015 -- though not by a particular date, making it impossible to mark your day planner accordingly.

Cultural dominance is hard to measure. And while we do have sales figures, even they leave room for interpretation. In the June issue of Information Research, the peer-reviewed journal’s founder T.D. Wilson takes a look at variations in the numbers across national borders and language differences in a paper called “The E-Book Phenomenon: A Disruptive Technology.” Wilson is a senior professor at the Swedish School of Library and Information Science, University of Borås, and his paper is in part a report on research on the impact of e-publishing in Sweden.

He notes that the Book Industry Study Group, a publishing-industry research and policy organization, reported last year that ebook sales in the United States grew by 45 percent between 2011 and 2012 – although the total of 457 million ebooks that readers purchased in 2012 still lagged 100 million copies behind the number of hardbacks sold the same year. And while sales in Britain also surged by 89 percent over the same period, the rate of growth for non-Anglophone ebooks has been far more modest.

Often it’s simply a matter of the size of the potential audience. “Sweden is a country of only 9.5 million people,” Wilson writes, “so the local market is small compared with, say, the UK with 60 million, or the United States with 314 million.” And someone who knows Swedish is far more likely to be able to read English than vice versa. The consequences are particularly noticeable in the market for scholarly publications. Swedish research libraries “already spend more on e-resources than on print materials,” Wilson writes, “and university librarians expect the proportion to grow. The greater proportion of e-books in university libraries are in the English language, especially in science, technology and medicine, since this is the language of international scholarship in these fields.”

Whether or not status as a world language is a necessary condition for robust ebook sales, it is clearly not a sufficient one. Some 200 million people around the world use French as a primary or secondary language. But the pace of Francophone ebook publishing has been, pardon the expression, snail-like -- growing just 3 percent per year, with “66 percent of French people saying that they had never read an ebook and did not intend to do so,” according to a study Wilson cites. And Japanese readers, too, seem to have retained their loyalty to the printed word: “there are more bookshops in Japan (almost 15,000 in 2012) than there are in the entire U.S.A. (just over 12,000 in 2012).”

Meanwhile, a report issued not long after Wilson’s paper appeared shows that the steady forward march of the ebook in the U.S. has lately taken a turn sideways. The remarkable acceleration in sales between 2008 and 2012 hit a wall in 2013. Ebooks brought in as much that year ($3 billion) as the year before. A number of factors were involved, no doubt, from economic conditions to an inexhaustible demand for Fifty Shades of Grey sequels. But it’s also worth noting that even with their sales plateauing, ebooks did a little better than trade publishing as a whole, where revenues contracted by about $300 million.

And perhaps more importantly, Wilson points to a number of developments suggesting that the ebook format is on the way to becoming its own, full-fledged disruptive technology. Not in the way that, say, the mobile phone is disruptive (such that you cannot count on reading in the stacks of a library without hearing an undergraduate’s full-throated exchange of pleasantries with someone only ever addressed as “dude”) but rather in the sense identified by Clayton Christensen, a professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School.

Disruption, in Christensen’s usage, refers, as his website explains it, to “a process by which a product or service takes root initially in simple applications at the bottom of a market and then relentlessly moves up market, eventually displacing established competitors.” An example he gives in an article for Foreign Affairs is, not surprisingly, the personal computer, which was initially sold to hobbyists -- something far less powerful as a device, and far less profitable as a commodity, than “real” computers of the day.

The company producing a high-end, state-of-the-art technology becomes a victim of its own success at meeting the demands of clientele who can appreciate (and afford) its product. By contrast, the “disruptive” innovation is much less effective and appealing to such users. It leaves so much room for improvement that its quality can only get better over time, as those manufacturing and using it explore and refine its potentials – without the help of better-established companies, but also without their blinkers. By the time its potential is being realized, the disruptive technology has developed its own infrastructure for manufacture and maintenance, with a distinct customer base.

How closely the ebook may resemble the disruptive-technology model is something Wilson doesn’t assess in his paper. And in some ways, I think, it’s a bad fit. The author himself points out that when the first commercial e-readers went on the market in 1998, it was with the backing of major publishing companies (empires, really) such as Random House and Barnes & Noble. And it’s not even as if the ebook and codex formats were destined to reach different, much less mutually exclusive, audiences. The number of ebook readers who have abandoned print entirely is quite small – in the US, about five percent.

But Wilson does identify a number of developments that could prove disruptive, in Christensen’s sense. Self-published authors can and do reach large readerships through online retailers. The software needed to convert a manuscript into various ebook formats has become more readily available, and people dedicated to developing the skills could well bring out better-designed ebooks than well-established publishers do now. (Alas! for the bar is not high.)

Likewise, I wonder if the commercial barriers to ebook publishing in what Wilson calls “small-language countries” might not be surmounted in a single bound if the right author wrote the right book at a decisive moment. Unlike that Silicon Valley visionary who prophesied the irreversible decline of the printed book, I don’t see it as a matter of technology determining what counts as a major cultural medium. That’s up to writers, ultimately, and to readers as well.

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