Iconic books are texts revered as objects of power rather than just as words of instruction, information, or insight. In religious and secular rituals around the globe, people carry, show, wave, touch and kiss books and other texts, as well as read them. This blog chronicles such events and activities. (For more about iconic books, see the links to the Iconic Books Project at left.)

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Surprise! E-books decline, independent bookstores increase

The New York Times reported last month that e-book sales have leveled off, and may even be starting to decline:
E-book sales fell by 10 percent in the first five months of this year, according to the Association of American Publishers .... Digital books accounted last year for around 20 percent of the market, roughly the same as they did a few years ago.
Meanwhile, independent bookstores are staging a small resurgence:
The American Booksellers Association counted 1,712 member stores in 2,227 locations in 2015, up from 1,410 in 1,660 locations five years ago.
As a result, "Publishers ... are pouring money into their print infrastructures and distribution," such as huge new warehouses and fast, 2-day distribution to bookstores.

The article attributes the change to plummeting consumer interest in e-readers, like the Kindle and Nook, that have largely been replaced by tablets and large-screen cell phones. But publishers still expect digital texts to continue to be popular, on one platform or another.

Maybe. What the article does not consider is the resilience of the book as a cultural icon that represents enduring value and worth. No digital platform shows any signs of gaining that kind of status. Until it does, digital texts might better be classified as the latest form of ephemeral text.

In the forms of newspapers, blackboards, broadsheets, wax tablets, ostraca, and unbaked clay tablets, ephemeral texts are as old as writing itself. They are always highly utilitarian even in their iconic uses as receipts and currency. The mutability of digital media makes it an effective replacements for older ephemeral texts. They are well on the way to replacing both currency and newspapers.

Books occupy a different place in human symbolism. They represent the permanence of knowledge and value. They are, in many cases, a very practical as well as symbolic technology for cultural preservation. That does not describe all books, of course. But it is possible that in retrospect, the e-book revolution of the early twenty-first century will have succeeded only in skimming off the ephemeral texts that used to take book form, such as pulp paperback novels and phone books.

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