Via The Passive Voice comes this Vox story about the surprise we’ve all gotten about ebook/print sales stabilizing at 20/80. Here’s TeleRead‘s take on the article. I admit that, a few years ago, I was a good deal more pessimistic about the future of print than I am today, but I do still occasionally have to wonder whether I’m maybe just living in cloud cuckoo land, so it’s useful to get these occasional debates.

The Vox article gives a clear account of the wholesale/agency pricing debate/debacle. And it is of course likely that the publishers’ success in managing to get the prices of ebooks raised from the discounted level that Amazon was maintaining did indeed lead to a dampening of sales. At the end of the day, though, I cannot see this argument as bearing too much weight. One might assume that Amazon would ultimately have decided to stop discounting ebooks by so much. But whether or not, too low a price for any product just leads to a cessation of supply: if you can’t make money doing something no business will continue to do it. If ebooks had continued to be sold at $9.99 publishers would have been unable to service the market, and ebooks would no longer exist. What is the “right” price for an ebook? Who knows — but by definition it cannot be at a price below the full cost to the publisher. The idea that higher prices have driven purchasers to self-published ebooks seems nonsense to me. Books are not fungible. If you want to read Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot, reading Elif Batuman’s The Idiot isn’t going to do it for you. (I do accept that a migration of this sort has occurred in genre fiction; the old mass market paperback market is now a self-publishing market. But even here there are more factors at work than just a single cause.)

Here’s The Digital Reader reacting to the Vox piece and working hard at striking fear into our hearts. He thinks Vox is talking nonsense. I do agree with him that wide generalizations of the sort uttered by Andrew Albanese quoted in that article are not usually too helpful. Assertion is not evidence — but this cuts both ways. The Digital Reader places confidence on the evidence of a piece from eBooks.com, an online ebook retailer. They report that 62% of their ebook sales are to people aged between 18 and 45.

Be it noted that over 50% of the US population is between the ages of 15 and 65. I dare say I could spend longer and find what proportion is between 18 and 45, but I’ve not got time for such stultifying research. One of the reasons the 30% of the population who are oldies don’t buy as many ebooks is that many of their bank accounts were closed when they finally bought the farm.

Now, I know nothing about this organization, eBooks.com, but might it not at least be possible that they are offering books which appeal to younger rather than older readers? Or that they market their service to the young rather than the old? Almost doesn’t matter: I mention the point merely to demonstrate the dangers of reaching general conclusions based upon particular instances. The eBooks.com website tells us that “We maintain license agreements covering the output of over 4,000 publishers. Our publisher partners include all the major English language trade, professional and scholarly presses.” OK, that sounds good, but does being a “partner” entail offering access to all your titles, or maybe just to some? And how many publishers are there out there anyway?

On their website eBooks.com disarmingly admit that the ebook market is probably now in the Trough of Disillusionment on the Gartner Hype Cycle. This does not mean that if things continue as predicted by the Gartner curve we should fasten our seatbelts in preparation for the next ebook boom as The Digital Reader concludes. It means that ebook sales will probably increase fairly steadily now that we’ve gotten past that initial boom phase. This will probably come to pass without any help from the “fact” that young people favor ebooks — (Why do none of the young people I know read ebooks? My theory is that it’s because they don’t have credit cards, but whatever. Maybe they are scared that this old book curmudgeon will get them if they admit it.) Demographics will almost take care of it all on its own: more population means more consumption. It is of course possible that DR will turn out to be right: maybe every succeeding generation will end up buying a higher and higher proportion of ebooks. One’s response is “So what?” When I started out in this business there were no doubt a few oldies who sat around pulling their beards over concerns that future generations would buy more paperbacks than hardbacks. A different format is . . . well, just a different format. No publisher stays awake at night worrying that hardback sales represent only 20% (or whatever it may be) of total book sales. Thus nobody’s going to worry about whatever percentage of sales turn out to be ebooks in twenty years’ time. Just so long as there are sales!