This is a guest post to WestBlog from Peter Jackson, chief scientist and vice president at Thomson Reuters in Eagan, Minn.:
A Nov. 2007 National Endowment for the Arts study showed that both book reading and book purchases are in decline (see “To Read Or Not To Read: A Question of National Consequence”).
This is true even for popular titles, and even among college graduates. Meanwhile, online sellers are eroding book sales in stores, and the used book market is stronger than ever. With the recent advent of the Amazon Kindle, even the physical manifestation of the book seems to be in a state of flux.
What is the future of the book business?
In the consumer world, the primacy of the book is under attack. People are reading less because they have other alternatives, not because they need less entertainment, e.g., one can now spend a boring flight with a movie or an iPod. But people are also using other media while reading.
According to the NEA study, 20% of reading time is shared with TV, music, games, emailing, and web surfing. Multi-tasking is now a reality, and it’s predictable that future e-Book readers will offer more connectivity, music, messaging, etc. (Just reading is so Twentieth Century!)
In the professional world, there are now many alternative sites for news, medical, legal, financial and scientific information. As with entertainment, the demand has not lessened, there are simply more channels for getting it. People like to talk about the “information explosion”, but I think that more is more, and more is better, as long as we have powerful tools for getting to the right stuff.
Amazon doesn’t list only “good” or popular books; they cover the “long tail” as well as the “thick neck”. But between search, recommendations and linking, you have a pretty good chance of finding what you want. (Westlaw uses the same strategy these days).
In fact, Amazon recommendations have been shown by academic studies to significantly affect sales (more so than the actual user ratings). The sheer convenience of Amazon shopping offsets the fact that (with shipping costs) you aren’t really saving that much. Add to that the instant gratification of downloading to your Kindle (as I do), and the value proposition becomes very compelling.
The bookstores’ discount cards and cappuccino can’t really compete with the Amazon interface, which learns what you like and then gives it to you.
I like bookstores and still visit them, but mostly to kill time or to have a different kind of browsing experience, especially while traveling. I have even taken notes at bookstores on my cell phone and then gone home and ordered the titles from Amazon through my Kindle. (Why would I carry ten pounds of extra luggage back from New York?)
I also find disposing of physical books to be a problem. I feel guilty about throwing them away, but I’m not going to turn a whole room of my home into a library. The Kindle solves this problem; if I don’t need a title for future reference, I just delete it. If I ever need it, I can download it again from my electronic library.
In the future, the book is no longer a product; it’s a service.
Chief Scientist and Vice President