The economics of shelfies

Digital technologies have obviously disrupted the publishing business as they have music and film and will do higher education. The record business was first to experience the shock and in its response offered plentiful examples of what not to do. To my mind, publishing has done much better, both in terms of the incumbents safeguarding their position and in terms of innovation with new formats and new creative options.

This is not to say that everything is ideal. There are new, damaging concentrations of market power in e-book distribution. There are too many celeb biographies and cookbooks due to the winner-takes-all dynamics – dynamics that Anita Elberse’s recent book  explains.

[amazon_image id=”0571309224″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Blockbusters: Why Big Hits – and Big Risks – are the Future of the Entertainment Business[/amazon_image]

Still, as I’ve said a few times, the balance is positive in terms of innovation, and also number of titles available and book sales. This weekend I read this post about the ‘book porn’ phenomenon, the growth in websites like Bookshelf Porn and Explain Yourshelf, the ‘#shelfie‘ vogue on Twitter. The author of the post explains it in terms of the physical pleasure, turning pages, feeling the heft of the book, seeing the spines on the shelf.

There’s an economic account, too, namely that reading online and reading offline are complements, not substitutes. Many people made the assumption that e-books would substitute for physical books. But the sales numbers don’t bear that out, as physical book sales have not declined much (during an economic downturn) while e-book sales have soared (from a low base).

It’s the same mistake that was made when people predicted the paperless office; in fact, access to more information led to more printing of documents, not less. Or when it was predicted that telephones, or social media, would reduce face-to-face contact, when all the evidence is that they increase it (see Ed Glaeser on this).

Generally, forms of communication and vehicles for ideas are complements, not substitutes.

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10 thoughts on “The economics of shelfies

  1. The economic account describes the relationship between book & ebook, but it doesn’t really get under the skin of it for me.

    I try not be sentimental about digital vs analogue but still find myself in love with my little collection of books on money, and secretly coveting a collection of 50’s & 60’s Jazz vinyl. I’ve been reading about value and fetish recently trying to get a handle on this sort of thing.

    I’m thinking it might be a time-space thing. A book has continuous reality of its own, whereas an ebook is re-formed and deconstructed at will. Somehow this seems to change their meaning to us. Sounds flaky, I know. And for sure, in the print process books are now digitized & re-formed. But for example, when I think about what different authors have said about money and how they relate to each other, the way I’ve arranged their books on my shelf has a real impact on my thought; their colours, their thickness, every aspect of their physical presence contributes to my understanding of their meaning. I’m not sure that could be reproduced via a screen.

    Now, I must tidy my shelves.

  2. I don’t have the statistics to hand but I’m pretty sure that sales of office paper peaked several years ago so we are moving toward paperless offices, just very slowly. Same may be true for books?

  3. Since I bought my Kindle I’ve read dozens, if not hundreds, of books on it but bought very few ‘paper’ books. I find them heavy, bulky and far too fragile. About the only ‘paper’ books I’d buy are ones heavy on photographic content such as ‘Britain From the Air’.

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  5. The most visible impact of ebooks here in Grim North London has been to reduce the shelf space for physical books in charity shops, which the shopkeepers attribute to Kindle. Impulse buyers now spend their fiver online instead of in the secondhand market (Interestingly, two shops have increased the shelf space for vinyl records). This is good news for authors, as they don’t receive a penny from a second sale.

    It should be noted that the rise in ebook sales tailed off last year – year on year growth is declining and sales of hardcover books are now growing faster than ebook sales.

    http://www.publishingtechnology.com/2013/07/year-on-year-ebook-sales-fall-for-the-first-time-says-nielsen-research/
    http://www.forbes.com/sites/jeremygreenfield/2013/11/19/hardcover-sales-growth-outpacing-ebooks-in-2013/

    This doesn’t disprove your point that ebooks and physical artifacts are complimentary. Far from it, the industry has picked up some low hanging fruit and it has barely begun to experiment with new formats and prices (eg, longform) let alone new containers for the rights they own, such as music products that containing reading, and books containing music for example.

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  8. Great post. One of the powerful thing about Shelfies is that they are a manifestation of the enduring reality of a curated, physical collection. Annotated, unique, hefty,
    site specific with patina and aromas. Powerful stuff.

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