What’s the matter with e-books?

Something happened to e-books on the way to market in 2013.

After a few years of impressive growth, sales of e-books have either stabilized or begun to decline. According to the American Association of Publishers’ annual report, overall sales of e-books are down around 5%–a dip that may be significant or negligible, but is nothing like the smash growth years of 2010 and 2011. Even more surprisingly (and worryingly for e-book advocates) sales of children’s and young adult e-books are down 40 percent from last year.

Meanwhile hardback sales surged 10% in 2013, and independent bookstores are reaping the rewards. The best-selling printed book of 2013, an illustrated book for junior readers, didn’t crack the top 20 in e-book sales, suggesting a diverging market. And Barnes & Noble’s signature e-reader, the Nook, truly took it in the teeth. Sales of B&N e-books declined 6.6%, and sales of Nooks plunged a shocking 67%. The CEO of B&N’s Nook division is now faced with unenviable task of saving the entire company. Take it from a former B&N CEO, William Lynch, quoted in USA Today after 2012’s similar slowdown: “Consumers have settled into their book formats of choice. Physical book sales will have a longer tail than previously anticipated.” Shortly after that interview, Mr. Lynch left the company, because its digital division failed.

E-book advocates have begun writing the same editorials that legacy publishers were writing in 2010, and newspapers were writing in 2000, and librarians have been writing since the telephone was invented. The march into the inevitable electronic future has stalled.

It’s too early to sing a dirge for e-books, but the idea that e-books will ever supplant printed books is fading fast. Some people think (hope?) the market is merely settling or stabilizing. That is now the best-case scenario for e-book publishers. They may be right, but I doubt it. I think the e-book gold rush is coming to an end. The real risk to publishers isn’t that print will disappear in the next decade, but that e-books will.

This is not just the faint hope of a nostalgic bibliophile (though I am far from alone in preferring print books to e-books, which is the point). I grew up on the Internet; I don’t stick with outdated media for sentimental reasons. I just don’t think print is outdated. And I think e, in the pure, .mobi or .epub sense, might be.

The source of this belief lies in the answer to one question:

What functions make an e-book better than a printed book, that the open web can’t do better than both?

I can think of several ways that print books are superior–for some tasks–to the web. I read a lot on the web. I work there. I do research. But I enjoy print books differently: as physical, social, art and comfort objects. When I’m reading a book in public, other people will ask about it, raising the possibility of a pleasant conversation. It’s easier to focus on the printed page, away from distractions and bright screens. I can navigate through books in a way that helps me remember where information is and how to find it, a scientifically supported advantage of print and a reason students prefer print for serious reading. I can make notes in the margins and between lines. I can get the author to sign it and make it a collectible or keepsake. When I’m finished reading, I can put the book on a shelf, give it to a friend, or donate it to a library. My bookshelves express something about my identity, values, and aspirations, something that is both personal and social. And then there’s the smell. It may sound silly, but these things matter to people.

None of this is true of e-books, or the web, but let’s leave that aside for the moment.

I can think of a couple of ways that e-books are better than printed books. You can carry more of them at a time, which is why they’re loved by travelers. You can buy one and receive it quickly. You can enlarge the text or search the book with a search engine. But you can receive a normal webpage much more quickly than an e-book, and carry more of them for lower prices on more devices. So what makes e-books better than that? E-books can be read offline, but so can a printed book. What’s uniquely great about e?

The only answer, I’m afraid, is that it’s digital.

When you get down to the code level, an e-book (as in a .mobi or .epub format) is just a webpage. A webpage with weird formatting and restrictive DRM. A webpage that costs a lot of money. A webpage that is tied to a single device and a single user; that can’t be crawled by a normal search engine; that can’t be copied or shared or linked to; that can’t even be bought.

Why would someone do this to perfectly good HTML? Because someone wanted to make webpages that look similar enough to real books that book buyers will pay book prices for them. The sales pitch for e-books is that they’re just like printed books, except they’re electronic. The whole e-book concept hangs on a shallow view of innovation that suggests that all things digital will replace all things analog, because digital.

But that’s not true. Where digital media has replaced physical media, it’s because the digital thing is better, not because it’s digital or electronic. MP3s are better than CDs–not because they’re digital, but because you can buy one song at a time. DVDs are better than VHS tapes–not because they’re electronic, but because you don’t have to rewind them, the cases are thinner, and they have special features.

The argument goes the other way for e-books. There are several ways that a high-quality hardback is better than an e-book. I’ve just listed them. There are probably thousands of ways that any other digital medium is better than an e-book. There are exactly zero ways that e-books hold a unique advantage over either one. The visual appeal of e-books is worse. The quality is (generally) worse. Compared to paperbacks, library borrowing, or browsing the web, e-books aren’t even cheaper.

In their rush to replace printed books with digital facsimiles, publishers have created an ugly, expensive hybrid of print and the web that doesn’t work well as either one. But don’t take my word for it. Ultimately, e-books testify against themselves. The fact that e-books are forced into book-form tells customers that printed books are “real,” and e-books are knockoffs. And guess what: that’s factually true. Once you look at it as a business question, e-books start to look less and less like mp3s and more and more like Flexplay, a deliberately limited format. You don’t have to be Steve Jobs to know that customers won’t buy that for long.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Giving up on e-books doesn’t mean giving up on online books, online stories, digital publishing or making money. It definitely doesn’t mean print wins–though I wouldn’t bet against it.

Right now, the best e-book designers are focused on making e-books that look and function more like the real thing. Throw in the drop caps. Add page-turning animation. Add illustrations. Try to convince the customer: Very book. So tradition. Much real. Wow. If that’s how it goes, and those are the functions people are asking for in focus groups, it’s because what the customer really wants is a real book. And if you’re a publisher, that’s what you should make and sell to them. Trying to deliver the print experience online is a narrow, regressive approach to the digital space. It’s like taking a photo of a newspaper, pasting it into a PDF, and calling that an e-newspaper. It will never convince a reader who has her heart set on a print model.

But we’re online now. There is no reason digital stories have to look like printed books, and there’s absolutely no reason they should. There is no need to have a special device for reading digital books. The browser is the special device. Once you realize that, everything changes–in a positive and exciting way. It becomes easy to see how narrative innovation has been held back by the faux traditionalism of e-books. And it’s easy to see why young readers are fleeing the format, even though they’re reading more than ever.

To get a peek at the upcoming “e-reading” experience, explore a site like fictionpress.com (or its better-known counterpart, fanfiction.net). That’s how reading, writing, editing, sharing, remixing and building communities should work. And it demonstrates how outdated e-books already are. The publisher that masters and monetizes the HTML book will beat Kindle every time, especially with younger readers.

That’s still a fairly traditional online reading experience. My hope and belief is that we will soon see “books” that take advantage of the web’s creative potential, that use the natural flow and motion of webpages to delight, charm and surprise readers. After being tremendously disrupted by digital, periodicals are nearly there. I can’t wait to see a fiction story that engages readers with the unique beauty, strengths, design and depth of the web. That day is coming, very soon, and it will be a great one for literature and culture. A whole new literary canon will rise up that will find its only true expression online. And whole new (and lucrative) industry will be born that will make someone loads of money and give them enviable cultural influence. It’ll be like the day someone invented movies.

Those stories won’t look like books, and they won’t be books. They’ll be something totally new, a blend of narrative, mixed- and multi-media, audience participation, self-publishing and startup culture. Incidentally, most authors won’t be able to realize those new forms alone. They’ll need production designers and digital editors. They’ll need people who understand the web. They’ll need publishers–not publishers that are trying to reinvent book culture online, but publishers that are trying harness the web to serve narrative and storytelling.

That’s slightly beyond the scope of this post. The bottom line is, a lot of people have bet the bank on a medium that is unlikely to outlast the decade, and definitely won’t outlast digital storytelling’s coming-of-age. And I’m not talking about print.

Right now, today, e is being out-innovated by e. My advice: get on the train before it leaves the station.

Or, if you’re feeling bold: build the train.

Full disclosure: the author is a librarian and a Millennial.