Neilsen says New Zealanders buy almost five million hard copy books a year. Meanwhile the Book Depository says out of the 160 countries it sell to, New Zealand is second only to Australia. We are ahead of the UK and the US.

These numbers come from a media release put out by the Book Depository. This may not seem remarkable, but the Book Depository is owned by Amazon.

The shopping giant may have started out as an online bookshop, but it has poured millions into developing the e-book market. Amazon still sells its own Kindle brand of ebook reader; the most popular standalone reader.

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Book shelves still growing

In other words, the world’s largest retailer of ebooks is happy to let everyone know that hard copy is still more popular with readers.

Scratch the surface and it seems the e-book market topped out about a decade ago. It hasn’t grown significantly since then. Meanwhile hard copy book sales continue to climb.

As far as it can go

I wouldn’t say this means Amazon has thrown in the towel on e-books, but it seems the market has gone as far as it is going to for now and hard copy sales are rising. Hard copy books have some practical advantages over e-books.

Neilsen’s New Zealand specific market research found 80 percent of people in this country only read hard copy books. A mere five percent only read digital books. The rest read a mix of the two.

Books are still popular online. Almost 600,000 New Zealanders bought a book from a website in the last year.

Book Depository says orders to NZ have climbed 45 percent in the past three years. Although this might be because buyers are switching from other sources both online and offline. Still 45 percent represents significant growth, remember e-book sales are static.

A third of the books sold here by the Book Depository are for children. So the next generation is already invested in print rather than digital.

Part of this could be parents wanting to prise kids away from digital devices for a few moments, but there’s also more pleasure in reading a hard copy book together than sharing a screen.

Books expensive in New Zealand

I suspect one reason New Zealanders are enthusiastic online book buyers is because prices are far higher than elsewhere in the world.

This is particularly true for popular fiction books which are often discounted in large stores overseas. In some cases we pay more than twice the price paid by UK or US readers.

There are a few crumbs of comfort in this for local bookstores. While huge sales are going to offline online booksellers, the fact that readers continue to buy hard copy books in such large numbers means there is still a worthwhile market here. It’s doubtful that books will die in out lifetimes. Whether they can compete on price is another matter.

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The undead book shelf

Josh Catone is almost right when he writes Why Printed Books Will Never Die. Although the pedant in me has an issue with the word never given that entropy means one day the universe will degrade into a particle stew. For now I’ll give Catone poetic licence.

He says:

Ebooks are not simply a better format replacing an inferior one; they offer a wholly different experience.

A good point. I’d read an ebook on a plane. I read work documents on a tablet or ebook. When reading for pleasure, I still want to see print and feel paper.

Whenever I hear people predicting the death of printed books I think back to the Roman, Greek and even earlier texts which can still be read today, then remember early electronic texts stored on 8-inch floppies or using now dead digital formats. Some of these are already lost forever.

30 years ago I co-wrote The Usborne guide to understanding the micro. The title has been out of print for a generation. I was surprised to find it listed at Google Books.

My book also still on sale at Amazon.com. Mind you, the sellers don’t want much for it.

The Usborne guide was my first book and, in sales terms the most successful although not the most lucrative. I can’t find any evidence but remember it featured on some best-seller lists and total sales ran to hundreds of thousands. If you know, please get in touch.

Usborne translated the book into a number of other languages including German. The cover of that version is below and, sigh, doesn’t feature my name. I remember there were other language versions, I spotted one in a shop somewhere in Spain. There were at least three reprints of the English edition.

Oddly the picture shown at Google Books isn’t the cover but the title page from inside the book.

Usborne Guide To Understanding The Micro

My other books haven’t fared so well . And as for this one from 1984. I wrote it under the pseudonym Gordon Davis after I saw a player with the same name score a goal for Chelsea one weekend. For some reason Google added the word ‘Bitter’ in the name. I’m not sure what that’s about.

Yesterday I learnt the .lit format e-books in my collection will be unreadable when Microsoft closes its Reader e-book service next year.

While paper books may not last forever, they don’t suddenly become unreadable when someone elsewhere in the world clicks a mouse.

When I heard Microsoft Reader was closing I reinstalled the software. I wanted to check my book collection and decide whether to shift the e-books to a new format so I can read them when the service closes.

Microsoft Reader is already dead to me

Installing Microsoft Reader on my Windows 7 64-bit desktop PC was easy, reading my stored books wasn’t.

According to Microsoft, the application was last updated in May 2005. That rings alarm bells. I’ve gone through two desktops, two laptops and two new versions of Windows since then.

Downloading was instant. You need to ‘activate’ the software before use – which was thankfully as straightforward as a single mouse click.

To test the software I downloaded a free book – it worked fine. However, when I tried to open an e-book from my library I ran into problems.

Digital Rights Management rears its ugly head

Microsoft’s Digital Rights Management (DRM) protects my e-book from piracy. Microsoft Reader told me: “You must reactivate in order to open this title”.

That process never worked.

The activation process needs Internet Explorer and a Microsoft PassPort account. Jumping through those two hoops – I haven’t used either in years and not at all on my new machine – took five or ten minutes.

When I finally got to the site there was a 500 Internal server error. I tried maybe 20-odd times but could get no further. So the book I paid money for less than 10 years ago is no longer accessible because of a fault on a Microsoft server.

What does this tell us about the e-book market?

Converting to other e-books formats

People helpfully suggested I converted my e-books to other e-book formats. A smart idea, so I gave it a shot. The free books converted straight away, the DRM-protected books wouldn’t convert.

A closer look told me there was only one paid-for e-book that was potentially still of interest – I could happily junk the others and not care about them.

What I did next is probably illegal – albeit in a minor and perfectly justifiable way. I found a pirated .pdf copy of the book online (you’ll notice I’ve been careful not to name it).

A quick download and five minutes of flicking through convinced me I don’t need to jump through any further hoops. I can happily drop Microsoft Reader and the books and be no poorer for the experience.

As the headline says Microsoft Reader is dead.

Microsoft’s decision to kill its Reader ebook software is no surprise.

When it launched in 2000, Microsoft Reader wasn’t bad. Reader used Microsoft’s ClearType font technology to make text more readable on the relatively low-resolution screens common at the time.

Over the years Reader was neglected. Other ebook formats – often built around hardware – zoomed past Microsoft in terms of technology and popularity.

My e-book library

I own a small library of ebooks in Microsoft’s .lit format. Or at least I did. Only a handful of titles and only one that I paid money for.

The books in question are stored somewhere in a back-up on one of the half-dozen or so drives sitting in my home office. I haven’t looked at them in years and I haven’t even bothered to install the Microsoft Reader software on my latest Windows 7 desktop and laptop – that decision alone speaks volumes.

I probably won’t need to read those ebooks again. If I wanted to, it would be a struggle.

Flawed e-book technology

And that’s the hidden flaw behind all proprietary ebook technologies. They are not timeless.

The problem isn’t just data formats. I’ve documents stored on floppy disks I’ll never access again. A few years ago I threw out 3 inch floppies (a proprietary format from the early 1980s) and the older 5.25 inch discs. At one point I had 8 inch floppies. If those discs contained documents, they are lost forever.

Print books go on effectively for ever. There are many books in my physical library that are older than me. I once read a 400 year old book. Hell, scholars can read Ancient Greek documents and even older works. Soon, it’ll be a huge mission to read something published for Microsoft Reader.

Enduring formats

While today’s popular ebook formats may last longer than Microsoft Reader, only a fool would assume they will be around for more than a few years.

In the meantime I plan to find a way of converting .lit files to another format for when I need those books again.