Forecast Failure

Wendy Lawton

Blogger: Wendy Lawton

Several years back I remember attending workshops on ebooks and the promise of new e-readers at BEA. While most of us could hardly wrap our heads around the promised technology and the plethora of proposed delivery systems, our industry futurists were already prognosticating the future. We heard that the new technology would replace the traditional book entirely. We were told that while older readers would cling to their books, the younger generation would embrace ebooks. After all, they already spent much of their lives interacting with screens.

IMG_5884I’ve always been somewhat of a skeptic and while I’m always ready to embrace technology I had my doubts. I had to laugh a couple of weeks ago when we spent five and a half hours waiting to put our kids on a delayed flight out of SFO. Standing at a pillar near us was what looked like a father and son. I surreptitiously snapped a photo to share with you. The son was totally engrossed in a dog-eared copy of an Isaac Asimov novel while the father read his book on his screen. Exactly the opposite of what was predicted.

I’d call that a forecast failure.

Lest you think this is an anomaly, The Huffington Post had a fascinating article early last year citing nine different studies that proved that books– traditional books– are not going away. Some of the things these studies discovered:

  • Millennials are more likely to believe that there’s much information only available offline.
  • Students are more likely to buy physical textbooks
  • Teens prefer print books for personal use

The other findings were equally fascinating– things like students prefer traditional humanities books even if the online versions are free and young people don’t connect emotionally with books they read on a screen.

I’ve experienced some of these findings in my own reading. I’m always an early adapter and have long been a dedicated ebook reader, but only for fiction. If a book is a classic or nonfiction, I must have the hard copy. I just don’t interact with a nonfiction ebook in the same way as I do a physical book. I need the tactile act of underlining (yes, I know how to do it on my e-reader, but. . .) and I subconsciously need the actual geography of a book. I need to know that a passage was on the upper left hand section of a page about one third of the way through. Plus with a traditional book it’s much easier to go back and forth and keep referring to charts or maps.

And, as for ebooks replacing traditional books, so far that’s another forecast failure. In fiction, ebooks grew at an exciting clip in the first few years but reports are that they have leveled off. Happily, even though ebook sales are still good, we are seeing a nice growth in traditional books.

I think the Teacher said it best in Ecclesiastes 8:7 “Since no one knows the future, who can tell someone else what is to come?”

What other forecast failures have you observed? From what I’ve observed lately I think the near future is looking better for traditional publishing and I’m encouraged. Do you agree?

62 Responses

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  1. Carol Ashby says:

    Wendy, I have seen some of what you describe regarding reading habits of millennials. My kids are both in college, and both prefer hardcopy textbooks, even at the higher price. My son is a ravenous reader of fantasy adventure, and he reads hardcopy almost exclusively. He almost always carries the latest book he’s reading with him. My daughter mostly uses her Kindle or iPad because of their portability, but she still reads some hardcopy.
    *One forecast that still seems on target is the dwindling number of brick-and-mortar bookstores and the reduced variety of books available in discount stores and supermarkets. Even in the last two years, it seems that the selection has dwindled with only a handful of best-selling authors being represented on the shelves and sometimes no Christian authors at all where there used to be ten or more selections. Do you foresee any change in that?

  2. “Geography of books.” I hadn’t thought about it until I read it here, but I do miss it on my ereader. It is the price I pay for the ability to change the font size (to me, that’s the biggest advantage of my Nook–I read much faster with larger font). I am delighted the book world offers me a choice.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      So you do read nonfiction on your Nook then. Are you able to read books you want to reference over and over?

      • I’ve read some work-related ebooks (one particularly boring tome on healthcare insurance stands out). No point in devoting shelf space to books that are outdated as soon as they’re published. On a happier note, classic Spurgeon is available for pennies! I re-read bits of Spurgeon to break up the insurance drudgery. I sometimes read just the parts I highlighted last time. But if I ran across the same classics on a yard-sale table, I’d snatch them up.

  3. Lori Benton says:

    I’ve called it spacial memory. I like your phrase “the geography of books” better. I need this too, especially for nonfiction. Also I find that if a book or article or some piece of my research only lives inside a computer I tend to forget it exists. Out of sight…

    I’ve never owned an ereader. I tried Kindle for PC for a little while, but what you mention about not engaging emotionally with a book on screen holds true for me with fiction. Ebooks are cheaper. They takes up less space. But the sacrifice of engagement makes for a bad trade off. Give me the overflowing bookshelf!

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      I’d like to see more research about the “engaging emotionally” research. I find it very interesting. From my own experience I know I certainly engage with fiction powerfully.

      • Iola says:

        Like you, I prefer to read fiction as an ebook, and non-fiction as paper. I also find myself engaging just as powerfully with the fiction when it’s an ebook as when it’s the paper version.

        The only difference is I’m never tempted to hurl my ereader across the room because of stupid characters or bad writing.

  4. Gayla Grace says:

    I’ve read a couple of articles on this subject lately, and they all say the same thing—ebooks didn’t take off as forecasted. Among our four grown kids, I see a difference in one being a prolific reader on Kindle, but the others preferring print still. I tried to adapt to reading on Kindle because of the convenience, but it’s not the same as a print book and I’ve gone back to holding a book in my hands (usually with a highlighter close by).

    Here’s a fad I bet no one forecasted—the popularity of adult coloring books. Who would have predicted the success of those? I have to admit, though, I’ve tried it, and it does provide some stress relief!

  5. I love physical books and so do my girls. While my girls have a Kindle, I “only” have a tablet. 🙂 I resisted it at first. I’d rather hold a book. But, I have to admit it’s grown on me in a few areas …
    *One … I like reading my own work on it … it’s another way to check for errors of any kind in the editing phase. And I save a ton of printer paper and ink.
    *Two … I like the tablet light. In the evening, I’ll pick up my tablet over a print book because I can see the words. I have a book-light, but I don’t like it. (and I can adjust the font) 😉
    *Three … my tablet encourages me to read books I might not have read otherwise … to give some books a chance. I’ll often download free or inexpensive ebooks that I might not have purchased in the bookstore. And then I fall in love with another author, and I buy their print books. 🙂
    *Like I said, I’d rather hold a print book, but I’m glad my tablet isn’t being completely wasted. And I’m staying up-to-date on technology. 🙂

    • I did run into one really cool thing about a tablet (or Kindle, I can’t really tell them apart) on one of the last times I was able to get to a Barnes and Noble…
      * Barb and I were in the cafe, she guzzling espresso (that’s what living with me does to a lady, though she would have preferred Jameson’s) and me sipping weak green tea, when we fell into a conversation with a family at the next table. (The conversation began because I tried to rise, and fell, and had to be helped up.)
      * Barb told them I was an author, and that they could look for “Blessed Are The Pure Of Heart” online…which the Mom did, and liking the description, she bought it.
      * And then she produced a Sharpie, and had me sign the back of the Kindle/tablet/whatever. She was really thrilled at meeting a Real Live Author.

      • She had you sign her gadget!! 🙂 That’s precious. So precious, Andrew.
        *I guess the main difference between the Kindle and tablet … anyone correct me if I’m wrong … my tablet is like a mini-computer, but I believe the girls can only read books on their Kindle (no internet surfing, etc)

    • Excellent points, Shelli. My husband gave me a kindle paperwhite for Christmas, and it is nice to be able to read in the van while he’s driving at night without turning on a light that could distract him. Also, I have, too, found authors via their ebooks.

    • Sarah Thomas says:

      I like reading my own manuscript on my e-reader, too! There’s something about it that helps me feel the flow (or not!).

      • Wendy Lawton says:

        When I read manuscripts on my e-reader I think it lets me see their potential as published books much easier. I’m comparing them to all the great reading experiences I’ve already had on my device and though it holds them to a higher standard, for me it has been a great benchmark.

      • Me, too, Sarah. And I often make changes on my computer to the MS as I go (reading on tablet) … up and down, up and down. 🙂 I get a little exercise, too. 😉

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      I also use a tablet– the Kindle app on my iPad mini. And I love the light as well. I can read hours into the night without bothering my sleeping Keith.

      I’ve read so many wonderful books and manuscripts on my iPad that I have the same deeply satisfying feel when I pick it up that I used to have with a new book. It is filled with wonderful stories.

      BTW, Shelli, I loved LOVED your blog post today. As a fellow adoptive mother, I understood every word.

      • You. Did. Not. 🙂 I know you did not read my blog post! Oh, my word. You have made my year. 🙂 That means the world to me … you know it does. Thank you … thank you, Wendy! xoxo

  6. Don’t have a Kindle, doubt I ever will. I too prefer the geography of books, though I envy the Kindle-users whenever I dust.
    * One of the most interesting things about futurists is their sometimes stunning lack of common sense…or perhaps they think that the brightness of the days to come (so bright you gotta wear shades!) will obviate the need for even the most rudimentary intelligence.
    * That last point may be borne out by the current political landscape.
    * A good example of futurists just losing it is The Flying Car…sure, it CAN be done…and has…but you end up with a lousy aeroplane and a slow, cramped car at the expenditure of beaucoup $$$. It’s an appealing thought, sure…kind of like the personal jetpack…but an appalling reality.
    * I suspect that the failure of vision is attributable to ‘want’ versus ‘need’. We did Need the Kindle, even though we didn’t know it…saves a lot of trees, anyway.
    * But while many people may want a flying car, no one really needs one. WAY cheaper considering the demurrage of initial cost and insurance) to buy a decent aeroplane and hail a cab on arrival.
    * The Flying Car appeals to Cool, and I can understand that, but as no-one can out-cool ME, The Second Elvis, why even try?

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      I sometimes wonder if futurists have a vested interest in their predictions. For instance if I produced an app for reading, it would behoove me to forecast that soon everyone will be using it.

  7. In the spirit of this post, I’d like to offer a tribute to the late, great Glenn Frey with a link to what I think was his finest song…”Brave New World”. I hope you’ll give it a listen, and be uplifted to face the future, whatever it holds, with hope. It sure helps me.

  8. First of all, I LOVE that picture of the father and son reading. For so many reasons. 🙂

    *Secondly, I prefer print books for a number of reasons, most of which you listed. And the “geography of books?” I love that and it makes perfect sense to me. I like knowing where I am on the page and in the book.
    *Like you, I much prefer to have nonfiction books in hardcopy because I’m a definite underliner. The act of determining where I’m drawing that line makes me think about what I’m underlining. And it’s easy to refer back to.
    *I hadn’t thought about not having as much of an emotional reaction when reading a book on a device. I’m going to have to see if that’s me the next time I read a book on my Kindle.
    *My brain is too tired to think of futuristic fails right now. Staying up till midnight to help a son work on science fair deadlines will do that to a gal. 😉

  9. I peruse when reading on an electronic device. I absorb when reading a hard copy. The e-reader benefit is it saves me money esp. if the book’s not all that great. Later I will buy a hard copy if I loved the book and know I will want to read it again or use it as a resource to refer to when desired. That doesn’t happen too often. I really like e-readers for reading books I’ve been asked to review. Then I’m not cluttering my shelves with books I’d probably never purchase. To me, good books are like friends. I value them.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      You wrote: “I peruse when reading on an electronic device. I absorb when reading a hard copy.” Interesting distinction.

      About saving money on ebooks. . . the last several (20+) books I’ve purchased have all been $9.99. I could have bought used copies on Amazon for $.01. I think the savings are slowly disappearing. We’re now paying for the convenience.

  10. I’ll join the chorus, Wendy, of those who love your phrase, “geography of a book.” Quite frankly, I’m torn. I can see benefits in both physical books and ereaders. My teens prefer the physical book, but they own kindles simply because they are easier for traveling. For a week in Florida (driving from Indiana), my 16yo will pack a minimum of seven books. With eight people crammed into a minivan, every inch counts. 🙂

  11. Carol Ashby says:

    We all know about Johannes Gutenberg, who introduced movable type printing to Europe in 1439, but I thought some folks here might like “the rest of the story.” I remember listening to talks at scientific conferences in the mid ‘90s about “electronic ink.” In 1995, Joseph Jacobson of E Ink Corporation filed a patent application that became US Patent 6,124,851, “Electronic book with multiple page displays,” in 2000. That patent was enabled by more than 20 years of research into electrophoretic display technology that developed the “ink” materials and electronic hardware that let the letters be displayed. If you want a little light reading, many of those papers and patents are referenced in the Jacobson patent. So, every time you turn on your Kindle or Nook, remember the dozens, maybe hundreds, of unknown-to-us scientists and engineers whose vision and labor made it possible for us to stay up way too late to finish the latest mystery or romance on our Kindles while our spouses sleep undisturbed beside us.

    • As a student working in a library I got so good at mending books they had me mend a Gutenberg Bible! But Gutenberg didn’t get rich printing Bibles since wealthy people already had handwritten ones and many other people couldn’t read. But he did publish lots of tracts and may have been the first to produce print advertising.

    • Wendy Lawton says:


  12. Sarah Thomas says:

    The geography of the book–exactly! The thing I miss most with an e-reader is the progress of my bookmark from front to back.

  13. I love the smell and feel of books.
    I recently went through our bookshelves and had to play “keep or give” with a few dozen. Okay, fine, less than a hundred. Ish.
    *AND* I can get anyone copies of Hubs’s Masters Thesis on Pollination. You know, for those sleepless nights when all you need is the pages of graphs to numb you into oblivion. I am sure that the fact that I cannot understand a darned thing may be part of my sleepiness. 😉
    I prefer to load my tablet with fresh goodies for when I travel. When dealing with luggage weight, a tablet is far superior to 12 books.
    But as for the book vs e-reader in the future debate? Nothing will take the place of a book. Traditional publishing may be hurting, but it’s not dying.
    The same goes for music. Nothing can ever take the place of a full orchestra playing The Barber of Seville, or seeing one’s favourite artist in person.
    But to have my favourite writer reading to me from the book itself? Oy.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Remember a few years ago when I bragged that with the purchase of sixteen four foot floor to almost ceiling bookshelves from the closing Borders I actually had some empty shelf space? Yeah, right. I’m having to lose a book for any new book I decide to keep again.

  14. Jenny Leo says:

    I’ve heard that some industry reports of sales figures only include books that have ISBN numbers, while many indie authors forego getting ISBNs. So their books may sell well online, but not be counted in “official” sales figures. Just something to keep in mind when analyzing sales data.

    • David Todd says:

      It’s not so much the lack of an ISBN. All my self-published books have ISBN. It’s the collection of data. Most book sales numbers come only from publishers who sell through Ingraham. The e-book numbers come only from the publishers themselves, not from Amazon or other retail outlets. Sales of e-books are much, much higher than anyone is calculating.

      • David Todd says:

        Ah, just re-read your post and saw your comment about the timing of the HuffPo article. Ignore the last sentence in my previous comment, please. I’ve just been jaded lately with people posting old information as if it were new.

      • Wendy Lawton says:

        One thing about sales of books and numbers, David, is that as agents we have thousands of royalty reports going through our offices so when we talk about trends we are actually basing it on actual trends we are observing (albeit just a slice of publishing) along with published reports. And we deal with traditionally dubbed ebooks and independently pubbed ebooks.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Jenny, we’re talking about sales collected from royalty reports and from publishers.

  15. Interesting findings. I enjoy taking my Kindle along in my purse when I know I’ll be in a waiting situation. It’s also a quick way to keep up with my reading. But when I find a novel that intrigues me, moves me deeply, or challenges me, I end up buying a hard copy of it as well. Yes, there is just something about holding a book in my hands and being able to mark up the pages, circle the great verbs, leave my reactions in the margins. I see a thin thread here leading back to one of my favorite verses: “In the beginning was the Word,” and “The Word became flesh.” Something about the hands-on experience was so necessary for humans. Hmm.

  16. Susan Sage says:

    What I’ve seen is somewhat along this line but it’s the written cards and notes. For many, the idea of actually sending something through the slow mail, or snail mail is underrated. Yet, I spoke with a postal employee recently who said that packages and books are still flying, literally, and letters, though lower than 20 years ago, are beginning to make a swing to the more popular again.
    I heard some young-than-me people talking recently about how nice it is to actually get something in the mail that they can hold, likely due to the rarity anymore.
    Personally, I think thank-you notes should make a comeback as well. And, I also love to hold a book in-hand, but when my eyes are failing, I can enlarge the print on my Kindle which makes it nice.
    There’s my penny’s worth.

  17. I totally agree about the “geography” of the book! I’ve never heard it put that way, but I have a near photographic memory … doesn’t help when you want to find a passage on an ereader. Also, my 17-year-old daughter always wants the physical book.

  18. On a philosophical note…I embrace technology where it’s helpful. Where it’s not, it’s back to the Stone Age for me.
    * Cars are a case in point; if I were still able to drive there would be no way I would buy a new (or near new) car, because I could not keep it running in extremis. (Yes, you CAN bypass the computer, but it’s a lot of work.)
    * Therein lies the problem, as technology fosters – perhaps deliberately – dependence. (Remember that Gates’ vision for Windows was that it would be leased, and not owned.)
    * If God grants me a miracle of healing and the platform to travel around the country and speak of my experiences, I probably will consider a Kindle. But now, here…it would simply be one more thing to plug in.

  19. Christine Dorman says:

    Wendy, I am delighted that traditional print books have not gone the way of the dinosaur. The situation reminds me of LP records versus the CD. My greatest love material love in the world is (blush that it’s not books) music. I had an extensive 33 1/3 and 45 collection which I held on to long after phonographs stopped being made. I kept waiting for phonographs to come back since I had some recordings that just couldn’t be found any place else, especially after my mom added her 75s to my collection. Finally, in despair, I gave up my collection. Shortly after my mother died (2006) I gave my record collection to a friend’s father. She said he was an avid collector and I preferred to give the records to someone who really loved them rather than to sell them. After that I went into a monastery for a few years (I have a checkered past!). Then, of course, the phonograph came back into fashion. Now people are talking about how much better vinyl records sound as opposed to CDs. I have bought so many versions of the same albums (LP, cassette, CD, iTunes) it’s not funny. So I am not surprised that print books have not gone away. I’m just glad.

    I agree with you about highlighting. When e-readers first came out, I read some books on an e-reader that I borrowed from my sister (who has more money than I do). I tried highlighting passages. It’s just not the same. Nor can you really dog-ear a page. I think there is nothing like the feel (the weight), the smell, and the physicality of a print book. Yes, someone can take a hundred books with her on a trip (my sister’s argument for e-readers) but it just isn’t the same as the experience of hold a book, highlighting passages, and turning pages. I am so glad that the forecast was a failure! 🙂

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      That’s a perfect comparison. I keep hearing the millennials talking about “vinyl” in the same way they appreciate books.

  20. I much prefer those old fashioned things called books and have hundreds – maybe even thousands of them. I seldom read the ones on my e-readers. One problem with the e-readers is that eventually the ones we have will become obsolete. They’ll stop making the kind of batteries they need or parts will wear out or break and not be replaceable. But I’ve still got books from my childhood and a few that belonged to my parents long ago and can read them. Once in a while I actually do.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      That’s a fear for me. Amazon stores all our books for us but what if they went out of business. where would our library be? (I know, not a chance for many a year, but. . .)

  21. Elissa says:

    I was just having this conversation with my sister this past weekend. She’s a middle school librarian. Her students rarely check out the eBooks. Sometimes when a title they were looking for is checked out (physical copy) and they’re offered the eBook version, they decline and say they’ll wait. Definitely in my sister’s little corner of the universe, the young people want “real” books.

  22. David Todd says:

    The 2010-2013 forecasts on e-book vs. print sales had about the same situation as the 1999-2001 forecasts on global warming: They had the correct direction, but were incorrect on magnitude and timing.

    E-book sales continue to grow, except with those publishers who have priced their e-books the same as their hardbacks. If you have to pay $25.99 for a hardback and the same for an e-book, what will you do? For me, I’ll wait for the paperback at $12.99, or the used book at $5. E-book sales from major publishers are depressed by publisher pricing. They are doing their best to prop up print book sales and slow the progression to e-books. Sounds like they are succeeding.

    BTW, I guess you know that HuffPo article is 11 months old?

    • David Todd says:

      Ah, just re-read your post and saw your comment about the timing of the HuffPo article. Ignore the last sentence in my previous comment, please. I’ve just been jaded lately with people posting old information as if it were new.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Regarding prices, I have some books from my favorite authors pre-ordered at hardcover prices. I can’t help myself. I don’t have cable television and I don’t go to the theater so books are my favorite entertainment, hence my justification.

      If what’s inside the books is valued and fans believe it worth the price, sales will continue.

      And as to the age of the article, I don’t see any change in those trends– about who reads on devices, do you?

  23. Interesting that younger readers still prefer physical books — that accords with what cognitive science has discovered, that a physical book somehow “sinks in” better. I agree with you — for books that I plan to reread or refer to repeatedly, I want a physical copy. But I often have both an ebook and a physical copy of a given title, so that I can refer to it on the go, if I wish. I recently re-read C. S. Lewis’s Narnia series via ebooks from our public library, even though I have a bound compendium on my bookshelf — I like to read in bed, with the lights out.