April 1, 2014

Tim Waterstone on the future of ebooks vs. the “iPad Dad”


Father son bonding

Father-son bonding courtesy of Shutterstock.com.

We knew he was out there. Like Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster, there must be at least one guy who has thrown out all of his books and moved to an ebook format for everything he reads.

The Apple commercial dream come true: You imagine his apartment must be spotless and white, with no sign of clutter anywhere. No books, no CDs. You enter his living room and you cannot surmise what he reads, listens to, or watches. Once upon a time, this kind of man was a glimmer in Steve Jobs‘s eye, and now he’s here. And he has kids.

Let News Corp Australia introduce you to Alborz Fallah, who reads with his two-year-old son Ari on the iPad exclusively. “I’m just determined that Ari should be as digitally aware as possible… You can get all the kids’ books on iPad, and they’re better than normal books.” The device highlights the words, he says, and “it’s a lot more fun, things sparkle.”

Any device—reading or otherwise—can make us feel for a moment we’re in a science fiction novel, and have finally reached the future. But Fallah might want to consider picking up a few picture books for his kid. Recent stats show ebook craze peaked in 2012.

In the first eight months of 2013, U.S. ebook sales dropped 5% from 2012, to $800 million, according to the Association of American Publishers. Hardcover sales went up 11.5% in the same period.

In 2013, UK readers bought 80 million ebooks for a total of £300 million. But that’s small potatoes compared to the £2.2 billion the Brits spent on 323 million hardcover or paperback books.

Amazon customers spent last week talking about how they’ll spend their $.73 rebates, and the sad payout after the Department of Justice trail may give ebooks a boost this season. But the ebook “sparkle”—Fallah’s word—can’t hold consumers’ attention forever.

Tim Waterstone, who founded Waterstones in 1982, told the Telegraph he has read “more garbage about the strength of the ebook revolution than anything else I’ve known.”

Speaking at the Oxford Literary Festival, Waterstone said, “The ebooks have developed a share of the market, of course they have, but every indication — certainly from America — shows the share is already in decline. The indications are that it will do exactly the same in the UK.”

“The [physical] product is so strong, the interest in reading is so deeply rooted in the culture and human soul of this country that it is immovable. The traditional, physical book is hanging on. I’m absolutely sure we will be here in 40 years’ time.”

Sales of children’s ebooks are down 40.1% to $109.6 million through August, but we can take those numbers with a grain of salt while we’re in the wake of the Hunger Games craze. Children’s ebook sales are up “significantly” from two years ago, the Association of American Publishers reports.

Will children who grow up with one of these weird dads buy ebooks exclusively as they grow older? That seems to be the consensus, as Jeremy Greenfield writes in Digital Book World. On the other hand, ebooks are already losing some of their novelty. (And nothing makes a kid want to eat cookies more than having his parents ban sweets from the house.)


Kirsten Reach is an editor at Melville House.