King County Library System says that its patrons checked out 5,678,572 digital books in 2019—up nearly 17% from 2018. This makes King County’s digital library system the third-busiest in the country (after the Los Angeles Public Library and the Wisconsin Public Library Consortium) and fourth-largest in the world (Toronto is No.1 with more than 6 million checkouts). But the Seattle region tops all libraries in digital checkouts when you add in Seattle Public Libraries, which posted more than 3 million digital checkouts in 2019.
Paper still rules, however. King County reported almost 22 million total checkouts in 2018, while Seattle reported just shy of 12 million checkouts, so physical books still account for about two thirds to three quarters of all checkouts.
Ten years ago e-books were barely a thing. The Kindle was out, but the first iPad didn’t launch until April of 2010, and speculation that e-books would bury traditional paper books was everywhere. You’d be able to store whole libraries on a tablet. You could search texts and take e-notes that you could find instantly. You could read in the dark, adjust print size and fonts and never lose your place. Not only that, freed of the production costs of turning dead trees into prose, e-books could be significantly cheaper to make and to buy. The advantages were obvious. Tablets would transform the way we read.
It hasn’t turned out that way. US publishers sold about 675 million books in 2018, earning about $26 billion in sales of all formats, with print accounting for $22.6 billion and e-books generating $2.04 billion. Revenue from all formats has stayed more or less flat for the past ten years – in 2008 revenue was $26.5 billion. Interestingly, the growth category in publishing has been audio books, which accounted for almost $1 billion in sales in 2018, following seven straight years of double-digit growth.
So why haven’t e-books grown into their promise? Partly it’s the failure of tablets to take over the computing market. After a surge of interest after the iPad was first introduced, tablet sales leveled off after 2014 and the market has slowly but steadily declined. Tablets now account for only 4.6 percent of the market (smartphones are 54 percent, while laptops and desktops are 41 percent). While tablets have permeated the workplace and cheap tablets are widely available, consumers seem to prefer big-screen phones to browse the web over larger e-book screens. It turns out that the e-book format hasn’t created more book readers in the way that smartphones have created more social media browsers.
More significant – it turns out people like books as physical objects. And not just older people grounded in the paper habit. A Pew Research paper reported that 72% of people aged 18 to 29 said they read a physical book in 2018, higher than the all-ages average of 67%. And it’s not just holding books; people like to display the books they have bought, reminders of titles they’ve read. The print books habit also reflects a larger embrace of physical media – vinyl records, live concerts, and festivals. Increasingly, we regard digital as cheap, ubiquitous and disposable. Books, on the other hand, are enduring and collectible, worthy of being collected.
Publishers are trying to discourage libraries from lending e-books, claiming that the practice cannibalizes digital sales. So publishers like MacMillan have dictated cumbersome and expensive terms for libraries acquiring digital lending copies.
The American Library Association testified before Congress last October about American publishers’ e-book library pricing practices:
The Big 5 publishers control over 80% of the trade book business in the United States. One of the Big 5, Macmillan Publishers, recently announced an eight-week embargo of new e-Book sales to libraries, to take effect on November 1, 2019. For a new release, a library may purchase only a single eBook copy, and then must wait until the ninth week before purchasing additional copies, regardless of the size of the library community. A single e-Book is made available to serve the people of the Providence (R.I.) Public Library, or for the entire New York Public Library system of 92 locations.
Abusive pricing for libraries also is typical from the Big 5 publishers. For example, The Codebreakers by David Kahn and published by Simon & Schuster was quoted for $59.99 as an e-Book for a consumer purchase—which means lifetime access. By contrast, the price to libraries for the very same eBook is $239.99—and this is for one copy (i.e., it can be loaned out to one person at a time, simulating the print loan model) and lasts for only two years. If a library wanted access for four years, it would pay $479.98. If the library wanted access for 20 years, it would pay a staggering $2,399.90—for one copy, lending that eBook to one person at a time.
Consequently, libraries don’t buy many copies, and the wait time to get even moderately popular books can be months and months. All of which makes King County’s digital checkout numbers the more impressive. So why is has our region embraced e-books more than the rest of the country? First, Seattle has a reputation as a reading city — and our usage of public libraries has always been high. Second, we’re tech-savvy with a high number of tech workers used to working on screens.
In case you were wondering, here are the most popular digital books lent by KCLS in 2019. Good luck trying to reserve your copies:
- “Becoming,” by Michelle Obama
- “Educated: a Memoir,” by Tara Westover
- “Where the Crawdads Sing,” by Delia Owens
- “Crazy Rich Asians: Crazy Rich Asians Series, Book 1,” by Kevin Kwan
- “Little Fires Everywhere,” by Celeste Ng
I wonder if the slowing of use of e-books might also reflect the fact that many people feel they already spend too much time viewing screens. Also, I find that the tactile aspects of reading a print book really help with recall, with knowing where I am in a book. And print books have personality — covers, typeface, smell, design, marginal notes — which make them distinctive, not generic. Glad to see in this reader-rich city that print books are winning!
All of which makes it more painful that downtown Seattle is about to lose its one remaining general-interest bookstore, with the expected closing of Barnes & Noble. Surely somebody should step into the gap!