Culture is future » Innovation and digital


Contribution : "The digital book is seeking new readers" by David Lacombled

The latest figures from the United States and England prove that the book – printed book – physical market puts up resistance facing the e-book’s assaults. More than that, it is recovering, confounding the forecasts of experts who already saw it leaving its place to digital formats. What if, paradoxically, this was also some good news for the e-book? Free from its role of printed books-eater, it shall finally be able to claim its independence and appeal to new readers… for the common cause of the book.

Bookstores are closing one after the other, e-books are totally supplanting the printed book and Amazon takes it all: here is the scenario that seemed to be written while we seemed to move towards a generalized digital mutation of the book. The vocabulary of some cultural studies described the printed books’ readers as “resistant” or, better, “unyielding” as if digital technology was a fatality which we could not escape. The very serious consultancy firm PwC had even designated 2015 as the year when e-books would overtake the physical sales of books…


However, even if we are far from a clear curve inversion, this scenario endured in 2014 a true narrative reversal. In the United States and in England where, it must be remembered, the penetration of the book market is stronger than in France, the physical book market shows serious signs of resiliency. Across the Atlantic, the bookstore chain Barnes & Nobles predicts that 2015 will slow down years of losses. On the other side of the English Channel, the bookstore chain Waterstones has seen its turnover increase by 8% in 2014. Overall, in the United States the printed book increased by 2,4% according to Nielsen Book-Scan, marking a second year of increase in a row, while the decrease was limited to 1,3% in Great-Britain (where it was of -6.5% the previous year), without including the Fifty Shades of Grey booster.

In parallel, the digital book market both in the United-States and in England keeps on contracting, the most prominent sign being the drop in sales of e-readers at Christmas and the erosion of the famous peak of e-books orders observed right after Christmas holidays.

The book war will not take place anymore

These figures prove that the perspective of the printed book’s destruction by digital technologies is receding. Besides, now, experts do not predict the Apocalypse anymore but a strong upholding of the printed book. We even discover that the paper book is gaining support among digital natives, especially through the teen trilogies (such as Divergent). The book civil war will not take place, and there is reason to be delighted about it: first, for the physical book, of course – and all the book chain that can breathe and think about renewing itself, not under threat, but for a more open future; but also, as paradoxical as it may seem, for the digital book. Because until now, the e-book, by cannibalizing the paper book and contenting itself with stealing its market shares, was only a replacement technology, which did not bring any added value.

Seeking for new readers

The book must not be a substitute product anymore, but a vector of expansion in the service of new readers. For that reason, it is time for the book to get out of the ruts in which it has locked itself up until now into the hands of closed systems. It must become a truly open model. Facing the players who compete for the market domination via an e-reader standard, it is necessary that the digital book finds back its cardinal values closely tied to the book, that is to say inclusiveness and respect for each other’s role in the book chain. Through the implementation of public standards, in order for everyone to enter this market while beneficiating from the interoperability with all the other players and respecting each other’s role in the book chain – from the author to the reader, and all the intermediaries that are an enrichment in the building of the book value.

Fighting for the book and the new readers

One of the obstacles to the expansion of the digital book identified by the book experts is precisely this lack of universality and convenience for the readers in the models proposed until now. This is with a new and more open approach that the e-book will be able to play its role and conquer new readers. The book has nothing to win in this fratricidal and fruitless struggle between printed and digital formats. The digital book must now assert its independence, find its own way of expression in the respect of the cultural nature of the book. Struggling against the printed book is a vain battle; it now has to fight for the book and its readers. 

David Lacombled

About David Lacombled

A journalist by training, David Lacombled is a Managing Director for the content strategy at Orange. He is also president of the think-tank, The Villa Numeris and author of the book Digital Citizen (Plon).

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On Twitter : @david_lacombled