A Lesson in Propaganda

You might have read an article in the New York Times recently, reporting both a decline in ebook sales and a resurgence of consumer interest in print books.  The article, written by Alexandra Alter, bases its conclusions primarily on data presented by the American Association of Publishers:

Now, there are signs that some e-book adopters are returning to print, or becoming hybrid readers, who juggle devices and paper. E-book sales fell by 10 percent in the first five months of this year, according to the Association of American Publishers, which collects data from nearly 1,200 publishers. Digital books accounted last year for around 20 percent of the market, roughly the same as they did a few years ago.

E-books’ declining popularity may signal that publishing, while not immune to technological upheaval, will weather the tidal wave of digital technology better than other forms of media, like music and television.

Alter then goes on to note that “e-book subscription services [like Kindle Unlimited]…have struggled to convert book lovers into digital binge readers,” and that “sales of dedicated e-reading devices have plunged as consumers migrated to tablets and smartphones.”

Without citing sources for these statements, she then uses them to support the argument that “the surprising resilience of print has provided a lift to many [traditional] booksellers,” and goes on to discuss the ways in which major publishing corporations such as Hachette and Penguin Random House have invested in expanding their print operations.

The founding assumptions of this article seem so specious that they call into question whether it ought to have been printed at all.

For instance, Alter focuses on the decline in sales of dedicated e-readers, saying that “growth rates [in ebook sales] plummeted as e-reading devices fell out of fashion with consumers, replaced by smartphones and tablets.”  In so doing, she’s confusing a supposed correlation with an apparent causation, and ignoring the obvious alternative explanation: that consumers have not lost interest in ebooks, they’ve simply begun to migrate toward full-function devices like smartphones and tablets because they offer greater functionality.

Throughout the article, Alter seems determined to draw a particular conclusion from a given set of data, without considering either the source of said data or the influence of other factors.  The revelatory manner in which she states that “[a]lready, a growing number of people are reading e-books on their cellphones,” and “Amazon recently unveiled a new tablet for $50, which could draw a new wave of customers to e-books (the first-generation Kindle cost $400)” reveals an ignorance of the way people read books that verges on the absurd.

People are reading books on cellphones?  Gasp!  And Amazon’s new tablet “could draw a new wave of customers to e-books”?  Goodness!  What a fascinating technological world we live in!

Those of you under the age of 50 likely know where I’m heading with this.  Alter’s argument is based on the apparent assumption that people only read ebooks on ebook reading devices–which is of course absurd.

All of the major distributors of ebooks make their products available on pretty much any device you might want to read them on.  By installing the Kindle app on your smartphone, tablet, or computer, you turn any of those devices into an e-reader.  The same goes for Apple’s iBooks.  This fascination on Alter’s part with dedicated e-readers is a relic of an earlier time.  Perhaps when the Kindle first came out (in 2007) and a few years after that, it might have been reasonable to draw such a strong connection between the success of dedicated e-readers and the success of ebooks in general, as there weren’t as many easy ways to read them.

With all this in mind, it perhaps shouldn’t be surprising that Fortune recently rebutted the article pretty much in its entirety.  Writing for Fortune, Mathew Ingram calls out the Times on an even greater logical fallacy: that of asserting that the data provided by the AAP, which accounts for only 1200 traditional publishers, represents the ebook market as a whole.

Fortune, after doing far more rigorous research than the New York Times, found data from Author Earnings that suggests that the AAP’s 1,200 reporting publishers only represent about 45 percent of the overall ebook market.

Ingram then went on to make the reasoned and fairly conclusive argument that it was much more likely that traditional publishers’ ebook business were doing poorly because they had recently fought to raise prices on Amazon and otherwise make it harder for readers to buy ebooks:

Some of the e-book slump amounts to chickens coming home to roost for traditional publishers. They have been fighting to keep e-book prices high — to the point where they engaged in industry-wide collusion with Apple in an attempt to do so — and they eventually managed to convince Amazon to let them set prices. Is it really such a surprise that higher prices lead to people buying fewer e-books?

What’s making up the difference? What accounts for the rest of the ebook market share? Self-published books, of course.  Not all of which even have ISBNs, which make sales hard to track in the traditional manner, which means that you have to listen to what Amazon is saying about sales.  They’re saying they’re up, incidentally.

Ingram’s conclusion is this:

Tech analyst Ben Thompson says in a post on this topic at Stratechery that the overall size of the e-book marketappears to be holding more or less steady, growing at perhaps 1% or so per year. So it’s not so much that the market itself is growing or shrinking by large amounts, it’s more that some within that market are winning while others are losing. That’s a very different picture than the one the New York Times story painted.

As my Fortune colleague Andrew Nusca noted in a recent post, whatever the short-term market fluctuations might show, the overall trend in book publishing remains clear: Digital sales are going to increase, and print is likely to become a niche market over time, just as it is becoming in the newspaper and magazine industries.

I’m disappointed in the New York Times for letting this article go to print.  What little time Alter does spend on discussing the alternative explanations–“It is also possible that a growing number of people are still buying and reading e-books, just not from traditional publishers.”–is dumbed down and obviously superficial.  The crux of the article is entirely flawed.  This is a propaganda piece, pure and simple, written to bolster an establishment view of the publishing industry.

It is a teachable moment, however, in that it illustrates the power of the media to occlude the truth and put a spin on events.

In the end, if you take away the New York Times masthead and base the power of the article on the writing alone, you’re left with the inevitable conclusion that it doesn’t pass the bullshit test: consumers are rejecting technology in favor of obsolete products?  Please.  Only in the New York publishing industry’s dreams.  Market disruption is a thing, guys.  You’re not going to escape it, even by buying a column in the New York Times.

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