There is an informative interview in The Wall Street Journal today with Penguin CEO John Makinson. The first question goes to the central issue in book publishing today, the rise of digital books and what they mean for print books. Right now, the absolute sales figures for e-books look small, but the rate of growth is tremendous. In 2009, for instance, e-books made up only 2.3 percent of Penguin’s overall sales. In 2010, though, the figure jumped to 6.2 percent—still fraction of the total, but if that rate of growth continues, e-books will dominate the market in only a few years.
When interviewer Jeffrey Trachtenberg asks Makinson about the future of “physical books,” though, Makinson is measured. Physical books will never disappear, he maintains. The reason is that the e-book customer has different motives and expectations than the physical book customer:
“There is a growing distinction between the book reader and the book owner.”
Book readers just want a reading experience. They don’t care about keeping the object beyond its delivery of words, images, plots, characters. But “the book owner wants to give, share and shelve books.” Book owners like having bookshelves with lots of titles. They like browsing in bookstores, too, a trait Makinson counts on because he is, in fact, the owner of an independent bookstore in Norfolk, England. The experience of visiting small, independent bookstores encourages book buyers to pay a slightly higher price for a book that they could get for lower online, he notes. Huge bookstores, however, lose that experience, which is why they are suffering.
This means that physical books and brick-and-mortar bookstores will survive the more they provide experiences that digital books and virtual bookstores do not. Mass market paperbacks made cheaply and designed for fast reading and disposal won’t last in physical version. The physical books that will last are the ones that people want to hold onto because the book affected them, because they enjoyed it so much they want to keep it nearby, or because the object itself is valuable (a lovely cloth copy and dust jacket, for instance).
And the physical bookstores that will last are the ones that people enjoy entering. They come not just to buy a book, but to see and hear and feel things within. They like to be surrounded by volumes, to sit in a chair in a corner, to chat with the manager . . .
Digital books are for readers, physical books are for bookish readers.