Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant
Digital book sales are flat, and polls show that teens are much more prone to read physical books rather than digital ones. Those who proclaimed the death of the physical book when digital sales were skyrocketing clearly were premature in their prediction. The longing for the physical book continues unabated.
A Multi-layered Desire
As a matter of fact, publishers should pay particular attention to this trend because I think it’s a multi-layered desire. Think about the adult coloring book craze. We generally explained the rush to color as a way to relax and as creative expression. But isn’t it also a tactile activity that engages our brains in different ways than using our fingers to tap keys or poke at a screen do? And what about the journaling Bibles, with their wide margins that invite readers’ arty musings of Scripture?
At the advent of the wildly popular adult coloring book movement, I surmised that readers were displaying an interest in visuals in their physical books. As a matter of fact, one of my clients had written and illustrated a blog series on her observations of life, which I tried to convince her would make a fantastic book. The illustrations were artfully done but also poignant, witty, and humorous. The idea was–and is–crazy to use those blogs as a jumping off point into an illustrated memoir. Right? Hm, I don’t think so. She’s skittish about creating such a book proposal, but my eyes would light up if I opened my email inbox one day to find that proposal happily nestled there.
I think a book about Earth with stunning photos, or a travel memoir with artful photos, would do well. Of course, we have no idea if publishers would agree with me. We very well might not be interpreting the trends in the same way.
The Lifestyle Book as a Trend
I’m not the only one pondering the importance of visually-centric books. In Publishers Weekly last week, I read an article about Deb Brody, who is settling into a new position at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt called editorial direction, lifestyle and culinary. Her job is to acquire books that keep up with consumers’ demand for diet, health, and self-help books. As a matter of fact, these lifestyle books comprise the fastest-growing category in the industry. The article describes various trends Brody sees on the health and culinary front.
I perked up when I read this:
Because so many new projects are sourced from social media, where an author’s material–recipes, tips, photography–is free to followers, Brody pays particular attention to what value a physical book offers to a consumer….
Brody is quoted as saying:
We do care a lot about packaging and making sure that the book itself is an object that you want. I think partly the ephemeral effects of social media makes [sic] people long for objects.”
The Physical Book and Ephemera
While the word ephemeral can refer to objects created to be short-lived–such as beautiful gift wrapping as well as our social media offerings–the word has an additional meaning: the collecting of items meant to be short-lived, such as circus tickets or movie posters. In publishing, examples of ephemera can be physical letters tucked into envelopes glued to the book’s pages, or tickets to a play the couple in a novel attended that changed everything for them, or a pressed flower to show its exquisiteness that supplements the copy’s description of the flower.
Social media might be short-lived, but it primes us for books with visuals. We all know that a photo or video brings considerably more attention to a post, a tweet, a comment, or a segment of our websites than mere words. So doesn’t it make sense that we would enjoy visuals in our books? Add to that the fact that books are objects, something to hold, and suddenly one realizes that the physical aspect of a book is a thing of joy to us.
The Physical Book as a Thing of Joy
Think about the qualities of a physical book that individuals tell us they love that aren’t part of reading a digital version: the smell of the paper, the feel of the paper, the joy of turning a page, the ease of moving forward or backward in the book. If we added to those inherent aspects of a book ephemeral details or visuals, wouldn’t readers enjoy the added beauty or fun of those details?
In that same PW issue, Bridget Watson Payne wrote in the Soapbox column an article entitled, “In Praise of the Coffee Table Book.” An art book editor, Payne urges us to retire the term “coffee table book.” That term suggests that we invest in beautiful books to put them on a table and add a seashell or vase on top to create an arrangement. Instead, we should call the books what they are–works of art that can make us happy to actually pick up and enjoy.
Payne enjoins us:
Let’s stop treating visual content like window dressing. Instead let’s start immersing ourselves in the glorious mental bath it is. Let’s soak in art. Let’s wallow in art.
What do you think about the idea of creating visually imaginative physical books? What would you like to see in such books?
Do we enjoy physical books more than digital ones? Click to tweet.
What coloring books, journaling Bibles & lifestyle books tell us about publishing trends. Click to tweet.
Interesting post, Janet. I always like hearing what the pros think will be the growing edge of the market.
*For novels, I’d find it distracting to have many images plus it would drive the cost of production up–both not a selling point for me.
*I do love nonfiction with great illustrations related to the text, but I’m not into lifestyle books.
*I like physical books much better for my reference books, but I also get digital when the hardcopy is too expensive or not available. Digital novels are just as good as paperbacks for me.
*One thing I do love about POD books is the velvety feel of the matte finish. A tactile delight!
Sometimes the images help lots. Orig drawings for ‘Narnia’ are both charming and illuminating. Would not have missed those.
* Methinks need modern form of illuminate MS. Keep starving artists from selling work at flea markets, and give reader the glow-immersion of love and care.
Carol, I’m with you on a couple points. One, I feel like sometimes the images in a novel are distracting. I am often put off by cover images that have too much facial detail–even though some of mine do (oops!). I’d rather the author give me general descriptors and I get to fill in the rest with my own ideas of what I find appealing. Some authors have given names of actors I don’t like at all and it throws me completely! Two, I much prefer physical books for my non-fic so I can flip back and forth and write physical notes with circles, lines and arrows. Otherwise, I want my fiction convenient–in my device resting readily inside my purse, along with a few hundred of its friends.
* I have a life, not a lifestyle. Don’t need no lifestyle books. Need books that give me courage to try stay alive.
* Colouring books for adults? Seriously? Life too darn short to colour between the lines.
* Using book as part of an ‘arrangement’? Seriously? Like inviting Ted Hesburgh over for tea, duct-taping him to a chair, and putting a flowerpot on his head.
* Books are the paths between the hearts of friends who may never meet.
Damon J. Gray
Actually, yes, Andrew. I color for relaxation. I have my very own crayons and coloring books.
Damon, when I was in high school I drew sketches of fellow students, teachers, and the Head in my textbooks…especially during maths. (I might have reconsidered this strategy if I knew I would eventually go to engineering school.)
* Years later, these sketches and caricatures took on something like importance, for I sent them to their subjects.
* Yes, even to the Head, and though I depicted him as a demonic koala waving his steel-edged rule, he was appreciate enough to send a kind note…and a photo of the drawing, framed and hanging upon his office wall.
Damon J. Gray
The non-reading 8 year old who joined our family was willing to give comic books and books of comic strips a go (we wore out a comic-strip Bible and had to buy a second one). He did grow into chapter books–reluctantly.
*His younger brother came to us with no imagination (how does someone kill the imagination of a 5 year old?). I read books without pictures just to get the movie going in his head. We read about Tom Sawyer when we camped out by the Mississippi River and Sleepy Hollow as we drove through the Hudson Valley.
* There’s a place for visuals, and a place for imagination. Blessed is the child (or adult) who has both.
I love that you and your family read books in the locales where some of them took place. I imagine those precious boys learned a bit about getting those “movies” up and running in their minds. 🙂
Damon J. Gray
I’m a bit strange in that I work (day job) in the IT field, pressing the limits of digital technology, yet I do not read digital books. I’ve never read one. I installed a digital Bible on my phone, but never use it. I want to hold the physical book in my hand. Another oddity (opposite from my wife who always passes her books on) I never get rid of a book. I have books dating back to my childhood years. That’s not uncommon for reference books, but I have have books on my shelf that I’ll never open again, yet I cannot bring myself to offload them.
As to your question, Janet, I’m not much for illustrations either, but understand why some are. It has to fit the medium and the genre I guess. What I consume are theological works that are alive and vibrant rather than tedious and dry. I want a book that produces movement in my mind, because I believe that only then will I experience any measure of growth.
Damon, I had a set of the Narnia books untouched for years; they had to wait for me to become young enough to read them.
Damon J. Gray
Those are precious stories, Andrew. My eldest sister gave me a hardbound boxed set when I graduated high school. I’d never heard of them, and found I could not put them down. Just one more chapter… okay, now just one more. 🙂
I read them to my children, and look forward to reading them to my grandchildren.
Loved this, Andrew. I have a hardcopy set of these books. I had them in my classroom until one of my students “lost” book six. No way to replace that one. I bought a paperback copy to have in my classroom. I still love the illustrations of the original though.
Damon J. Gray
Ugh!! Jeanne, that’s heartbreaking. I loaned my boxed set to a fellow student in college and never got it back. Like you said, it is irreplaceable. It makes me sick because it was the gift set from my sister.
I’m sorry that happened to you, Damon. It’s so disheartening.
Damon, you may want to get a Kindle Fire (<$50). There are some superb theological books from pre-1926 that are free or extremely cheap for Kindle and otherwise not available or too expensive as collector's copies.
Dephi Septuagint: complete Greek and English edition (illustrated) for $2.99
Josephus and early Church fathers with illustrations and notes from Delphi
Many by A.W. Tozer, Andrew Murray, GK Chesterton, and a treasure by RA Torrey
Sadhu Singh-a convert who gave his life to spreading the Gospel in India (John Stott quotes him)
* Like you, I keep books. That's why I have a 4×8 and 8×11 bookcases 2-deep and horizontal on top of that and a couple dozen plastic boxes of books in the garage and 8 or so boxes by my writing desk. I've started getting many novels on Kindle, partly for space reasons.
*I also buy many of my writer's craft books as Kindle versions. Rayne Hall's deep POV e-book was so great I got all 15 in her 3 e-boxed sets.
Damon J. Gray
Oh Carol … you ARE a kindred spirit!! I finally had to build 2 x 4 bookshelves in the garage to house all my books. 😉
As for the Kindle, my wife has a Kindle Fire. We had one of the old b & W lcd originals, and gave that one away. I may need to break down and learn to appreciate the technology. I’m a bit of enigma, making my living through development of technology, yet resisting its intrusion into my life.
Kindred spirits! I worked in the scitech world, and I have no trouble resisting new technology at all. We even have a ’74 Jeep with a carburetor so we’ll still be able to drive after the solar storm takes out all the car electronics.
Damon J. Gray
Ha!! I got a good chuckle out of the carb. Carol, I’m a slow mover with tech. I was still using DOS up until Windows 98 came out and had Service Pack 1. The only reason I carry a cell phone is because my kids forced me there.
When I really love a tablet is when it’s getting late … and I don’t want a bright light on … I love the soft glow of the tablet, enabling me to read at night. I’ve actually had a hard copy and digital version of the same book … used the hard copy during the day and resorted to the digital version at night. 🙂
Me, too, Shelli!
I love photography, and I love the physical book. Maybe that’s why I like Instagram so much. I know it’s good to let the imagination soar, but I think a few pictures scattered throughout a beautiful book like Laura Frantz’s Loves Reckoning would be so sweet. I love how she has pictures on Pinterest to set your mind’s stage, either before you read or after … I can so see a few of those within the pages of that lovely book.
Damon J. Gray
I would not have thought of this without reading your post, but yes, I too love photography books, but need to qualify that to say “historical” photography. I love to see old, old photos of how people lived, where they lived, how they got around, what was in their shops, etc. Those types of photos fascinate me!
Me too, Damon. The tools they used. My daughter has to write a history paper … she’s an indentured servant who has come over from England to America, and she has to writer her parents saying why she made that choice, share about her surroundings. I don’t know the exact year yet … but I’m looking forward to hearing about her research. I tell you what else I love … I love seeing pictures of England. Cottages, etc. I don’t write about that, England or historical, but I’ve made a few friends who live in England (thru Instagram), and I love seeing their photos. Actually, I just love seeing photos from all around the world … so interesting, when I figure I’ll never make it to some of those places. And oh, how I cherish old photos from my grandparents’ time. I think it’s funny how people didn’t smile for pictures … wonder when that ended and “say cheese” began. 🙂
Don’t know if anyone remembers Richard Bach’s “Illusions”, but it opened with backstory told on the oil-and-fingerprint-stained pages of a faux-journal. I found it an effective bit of stage-setting for a magical and mystical story.
Cool! No coffee rings?
Kristen Joy Wilks
I buy physical books for my sons, one a month as a prize that I give out whenever I catch them being awesome. I love walking into our little local bookstore and smelling the fair trade chocolates and the scent of hand-painted bookmarks and asking if the books I ordered are in. Then carrying those three gorgeous tomes home in a paper sack, waiting for the moment that I can award them. It is so lovely and makes me feel rich. I fed my reading habit through libraries only as a girl. Those few precious books that I actually owned were so special. Thankfully I did get a Nook and do buy myself books on it regularly now. For myself, I just want the story. For a gift, I want to hold the book, smell the adventure, and see them take it into their hands. If you guys want to see the May books, I post a pic online most of the time. These are all part of a series and so the boys are having a hard time waiting for May! https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=1317711814965387&set=a.366211910115387.79462.100001797438679&type=3&theater
I LOVE this idea, Kristen. I was a library kid, too, and still have my few that I got as a child. We took our kids into Borders all the time, and they always got a book. Both still love to read.
*My son (a millennial) always has a paperback with him. Barnes and Noble should love him. Whenever anyone asks what he’d like as a present…B&N gift card.
*I bought his Kindle Fire as a gift, so it’s tied to my account. He virtually never buys ebooks; it’s physical books he loves.
Oh Janet, your post and all the wonderful comments have my thoughts buzzing! As for illustrations/photos in fiction, I don’t know how I feel about that. It could be fun, but not too many, I think. As a girl, my parents bought us the Chronicles of Narnia and they read them to us. I LOVED looking at the illustrations (probably the originals as Andrew mentioned). As a middle-grade reader, I sometimes looked for the illustrations before I read the book. They fueled my imagination.
*As an adult reader, I love reading the story, envisioning the settings, and imagining the images and voices of the characters.
*I started thinking though, if there is an artistic character in a story, wouldn’t it be cool to be able to depict/show their art? I wrote a story with a photographer in it, and I loved trying to describe the photos from the story, but it would be stunning (in my mind) to actually see those photos. Maybe it’s because I love taking pictures so much. 🙂
*I do love looking at books with photos of nature in them. I often find the images breath-taking and wonder how in the world the photographer made it all pop. 🙂
I agree, Jeanne … very few. Classy.
Janet – this is one of the best posts I’ve seen. Thanks for sharing your heart and passion; so much more than a marketing strategy.
Thank you, Robert. That’s a big complement coming from you.
I’d love to see a resurgence in some of the “old” forms of illustration. Beautifully embossed covers. Etchings and engravings with lovely tissue paper overlay. Not too many, just enough to set the imagination to spinning! I’ve purchased antique books I never plan to read just so I can enjoy them as art.
A book lover after my own heart.
Yes – illustrations, especially maps. Family trees. You mentioned pressed flowers, Janet, – a delight, but costly, it seems. Envelopes with letters? Yes, yes, yes! What about a leatherbound journal-type book with white-edged photographs, ribbons, letters, feathers, maps, etc. Probably cost-prohibitive, but what a wonder!
Damon J. Gray
Oh, maps! I love maps! When my wife and I go to the library together, she browses the stacks while I look at the collection of old maps.
Whenever I see stats about ebook sales quoted, I want to ask, “Where are these numbers coming from?” Are they coming from the Big Houses, BookScan, or from surveys. That will tell me a great deal about the why of the flattening in sales. If they are coming from the publishing houses, it may have a LOT to do with the fact that these houses are asking MORE for their ebooks now than they are for their paperbacks, and in some cases even their hardbacks. As far as I can tell this is a new trend, and I don’t believe a very good idea on their part–unless someone can explain the phenomenon to me. If the numbers are coming from BookScan and/or the pub houses, it could be due to the number of readers who now read independent authors (who are not often counted, or not counted accurately on BookScan) or those from indie publishers (who are not always counted by statisticians). OR that a number of readers are borrowing from the Kindle Unlimited library. Of course, those are not buys, but they are paying readers–they just pay differently. These are where the e-reading public is going. Are the statisticians including these people? Surveys, though they only show a sample of the population, are probably our best bet for information, though of course limited based on sample size, etc.
The teen reading phenomenon makes sense to me, but I don’t think that is a generational thing as much as it could be an age thing. In other words, I believe many of these physical book readers will turn into e-readers as their lives become more complicated with jobs and children. No one wants to lug books around to practices when they could just read from their phone on the go. In fact, now that our library has an easy download mechanism for loaning ebooks online, my fifteen year old daughters avid reader friends are very excited about the convenience.
I don’t think we yet know what will happen to publishing in the next ten years, but I have a feeling many will be flabbergasted when it comes. It’s just that kind of industry right now.
That’s a great question, Connie. I’m publishing indie, and one of my author sites is a Roman history site that has 10-40% of its daily visits from non-US people. I just looked at all my first 5 months of KDP reports yesterday. I have about 10% of my sales at the 35% rate, which means not US, western Europe, Canada, Australia, or New Zealand, which all pay 70% royalty. I can’t tell what fraction of the 70% sales are international because they went through Amazon.com, not their own country Amazons. I would be curious to know whether the digital vs. hardcopy include international sales figures and what the purchasing pattern is internationally.
FYI, the paperback costs 5x the digital at Amazon (both at US and international sites), and more than 80% of my sales are digital. I’d bet the relative cost ratio has a bigger effect than personal preference, even though the POD matte cover feels SO nice, IMHO. A buyer can’t tell that online.
I balk at paying almost as much for a digital as a hardcopy. I understand publishers wanting to push print sales, but what does it do to total sales?
Good question, Connie. The flat sales in digital books are reported from publishers and BookScan. So, yes, digital sales most likely remain robust for indie books. Especially for fiction, of course. All readers tend to prefer nonfiction (unless it’s memoir or narrative nonfiction) as physical books.
I’m not trying to prognosticate what publishing will look like 10 years from now; that’s way too far out for an industry that still is seeing lots of changes.
It’s always fun when you do prognosticate, Janet. I hope you don’t stop. I like to know what someone with her finger on the pulse of the industry thinks.
Jennifer Zarifeh Major
One of my favourite books that I ever bought on impulse is a 2×3 FOOT volume of maps and stories, from National Geographic, of almost every culture on every continent.
It needs to be opened on a full sized table, because it’s got a serious wingspan!
Reading a map that big has no digital equivalent.
But, for me, with my arthritic hands, an ebook on my phone is my book of choice, simply because the phone is easier to hold than an actual book..
Jennifer, the cover that Amazon sells for the smallest Fire (the <$50 one) will actually wrap it's cover back across your hand in landscape mode. You can let the Fire rest on your palm or relaxed-fist thumb and index finger and it will stay in place. You don't even have to grip it. Great for anyone with arthritis or other problems with their hands.
My heart is soaring. Thank you, Janet, for sharing this. I understand some commenters’ concerns over illustrations detracting from the movie-in-the-mind aspect of fiction. But I believe there are numerous opportunities in most stories for illustrations that won’t overpower the reader’s imagination and can add another layer of depth. I read a good amount of historical fiction, and drawings of forge tools, paddle steamboats, or a young woman’s “pocket” can make the images evoked by the story fuller.
I have a friend who is an artist and we often discuss illustrations we dream of putting in my novels. she has illustrated some of my short stories. And I’m organizing ideas for two books that incorporate story and art. Your observations encourage me.
Hooray for thinking outside the box. Yes, sometimes an illustration of an object 21st century readers aren’t familiar with could help so much.
Plus, I think of books like The Book Thief in which art is part of the story certainly doesn’t create a disruption to the plot but instead is necessary to move it forward.
I agree. I read fiction for a time on my Kindle, but now only read paper books. Also, I’m journaling daily as I read through the Bible in a year–and just gave the first of those journaled Bibles to the oldest of our ten grandchildren last weekend for her birthday (nine to go!).
I love this! I always wanted to turn my travel blog into a book and illustrate it with hand-drawn (not by ME) watercolors. Kinda like one of my fave books, “In and Out of the Garden” by Sara Midda.
Susan Branch did that very thing (including handwriting the chapters and doing the illustrations–of course) for a trip she took to England. I kept thinking about how grand it would be to travel, knowing you had a book contract in hand and the trip was tax deductible. Her book is entitled A Fine Romance: Falling in Love with the English Countryside.
I read an opinion piece recently that described a physical book as a luxury item. I thought that was very interesting. It costs a little bit more than the digital version, but is also more luxurious.