Are Books Fading Fast — Or Already Obsolete?

Yesterday, I heard on the radio that former NJ governor Jim McGreevy’s tell-all book about sex and corruption during his administration sold 15,000 copies in its first week, enabling it to hit the NY Times best-seller list.

What saddens me is not that my former governor is making money based partly on the lousy job he did running my state while in office.

It’s that selling only 15,000 copies of a book makes it a best-seller!

If a pop diva’s new CD sold only 15,000 copies in the first week, Entertainment Tonight would be doing a story on the short life of her career.

If a movie sold only 15,000 tickets in its first week, the lead actor would be entering the Ben Affleck stage of his career.

Frightening, really, how much greater the consumption of electronic media is compared with books — once considered the primary source of knowledge and learning in this country.


59 thoughts on “Are Books Fading Fast — Or Already Obsolete?

  • Hey Bob;

    If I sold 15,000 of my books in a week, I would be screaming it from the rooftops. I do not have the track record you do Bob, but have you ever sold that volume of books in only a week OR even a month? Seems darn good to me.

    I think this shows peoples desire for trash reading. Us in the B2B world have to sell the good old fashion way, by writing something people really want and marketing the heck out it.

    No, books are not dead. But maybe some of their biggest readers are. Long live the future book, the ebook.


  • I believe in books. I grew up with books. I am mentally and spiritually stimulated by books. Much more so than a television program or an Internet web page has ever stirred me. Am I already old fashioned at 31 years of age?

    I do not believe it is books that have become archaic, but rather it is the extended attention span it takes to complete them that has become obsolete.

    In today’s “now” society we can get anything we want with the click of a mouse and a credit card number. But, immediacy has never been the precursor to learning. We all learn at our own pace. We all digest and disseminate information differently. And our experiences have as much to do with our acquirement of knowledge as does our ability to grasp what we are being told.

    These things do not happen with immediacy. Books require patience and accountability. Books require time, effort and responsibility. Such virtues and requirements offer a greater depth of understanding (and teaching) that is simply unfounded in any other medium. Isn’t the book always better than the movie?

    If books are going the way of the dinosaur, what does that say about humanity? Likewise, and in a manner just as disturbing, what does the NY Times best-seller list say about humanity…

  • You’re absolutely right, Bob, but I would point out one thing: Books continue to have an impact that’s way out of proportion to their numbers. An impact on society. An impact on the culture. An impact on politics. On the “zeitgeist,” if you will. To take one example, I personally believe that the current poker craze we’re experiencing in this country today was triggered by a book called “Positively Fifth Street” by James McManus. It was a Farrar Strauss Giroux book — i.e. very sophisticated and literary — and it did hit the NYT non-fiction list for a few weeks. But I don’t imagine that one out of a hundred of the folks playing poker nowadays ever read it. Neverthless, by virtue of reaching the right people with the right message at the right time, a book can still have an enormous effect on society. So who cares if you’re not reaching as many people as Brittany Spears is … the truth is, you’re reaching more important people. 

  • I know book sales are down but I’m still one of those people who reads print every day: newspapers, magazines (trade and otherwise), and books. I love books — the smell, the feel, the print, the words. I cannot ever see myself reading a book from an “e-book reader.” I prefer to lie on my couch with my dogs immersed in the world the author has created for me. That is my idea of heaven.

  • Bob,
    I think Richard hit the nail on the head. Books have an impact way beyond other media. Even books that don’t get read! As Mark Twain wrote “A classic is a book which people praise and don’t read.”

    How many people actually read “Uncle Tom’s Cabin?” But it changed the world!

    When you tell people you wrote 50 books, I’m sure it makes a lot more of an impression than saying you wrote 5,000 (or 50,000) direct mail letters! (And I’m sure your books helped a lot of aspiring and working writers!)

    The numbers only tell part of the story.

  • Books are like eggs – a perfect form. I doubt they’ll ever go away or lose their appeal.

    (TV also has its moments, tho’ – and I would suggest that it was the first season of the World Poker Tour (WPT) that set the poker world on fire … especially with the “you see all the cards” feature. McManus was in the right place at the very right time, IMHO.)

  • Many editors at major NY publishing houses have told me in private that the #1 problem facing book publishing today is not lack of readership but competition: there are way too many books published each year.

  • Compared to laptop PDFs or e-readers, books are portable, cheap, and don’t electrocute you when you drop them in the bathtub.

    When e-ink devices or some technology alternatives become as inexpensive and disposable as books, we’ll call them … well, books.

    The form factor is ideally suited to the human physiology.

    As a side note, I’d have been delighted if Marketing Online for Dummies or Internet Marketing for Dummies had sold 15,000 copies in its first week. However, I do see that certain kinds of non-fiction (how to, for example, or other categories that can be frequently updated) may be the first types of books to move to a high-resolution, inexpensive digital media.

  • As others have said, there is more to a book than it being an information transfer device. For me, a book is more than a cognitive experience. I love the look, feel and smell of a book. I have purchased more than one book because I knew I’d like the way it would look in my library.

    I often wonder how much great information is being lost in the electrons due to the physical product not being created. I pass on a lot of the e-books just because they are electronic. If I do purchase an e-book, I immediately print it and put it in a binder within minutes of the download. If I don’t, I never get past the tenth page and I never return to it.

  • Was there a time when 15,000 copies was a small number for a best-seller?

    Frankly, I think readers are vanishing. The news networks are just expanding like crazy filling our niche for non-fiction, current events, and interest stories. The history channel, discovery channel, health channel seem to cover everything the news doesn’t. Fiction readers just seem to drown in our schedule-crunching business-orientated culture.

    I have to say I wish I could find the time to read more.

  • Books Fading Fast? Hah! Tell that to all the B&N bookstores popping up around here — each offering a 10-minute wait to get a parking space. And tell that to the shipping department at
    My friends and colleagues (and me) are all voracious readers. We have books piled on our nightstands, our dining room tables, and our office bookshelves. I just don’t see what you mean, Bob. And Mike S: I don’t agree that e-books will ever replace the printed word. You just can’t curl up with an e-book and your dog (my kinda heaven is the same as Dianna Huff’s).
    As far as an age of readers fading away, I’d point to B&N huge children’s section, every state’s local libraries offering children reading hours, parents who teach their children the love of reading, and Harry Potter.

  • Maybe your former governor doesn’t have much competition right now. (I just zipped over to their site, and I think I may have a point there.)

    And I hesitate to mention this particular title, but it wasn’t long ago that a book named “The DaVinci Code” was breaking every record out there.

    I don’t think books are going anywhere, but if they do, I’ll be right beside Michael on that rooftop. He’ll be yelling from it, I’ll be throwing myself off it.

  • Pam, me too. I have a fierce love of and devotion to books. But will the kids being born today? They are growing up in a world where electronic media, not print, reign supreme.

  • Bob, I think the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree when it comes to kids reading books. We have a long standing “YES” rule in our house if anyone asks for a book. Of course, with 6 readers in the house there is always a stack of books in every room. I guess it doesn’t help that most of us are reading 2 or 3 at a time.

    My daughter was the captain of her “Book Bowl” team. Local schools read assigned books and then compete for points by answering questions from the book.

    So, I don’t think the kids of today will be any different from the kids of yesterday. It is all a matter of how the apple is grown.

  • While I think books will always be with us (until an e-book can be rolled up and slipped in a pocket, anyway) I have similar concerns about diminishing returns. Right now, most school kids use books, but more and more (like my kids) will be schooling completely online. My kids love to read because they see me doing it, but there is a large segment of our population who do not read. When education becomes predominately online, books will fall off a bit.

    Also, business books may drop off a bit faster with the availability of so many e-books.

    Naw, I take it all back, books are here for good.

  • SW: We have the same rule with my two boys: if they a video game, they have to pay for it. If they want a book, I buy it. My older son was never a book lover, but now he is reading books on the two topics that fascinate him, nature and history.

  • The fact that books aren’t selling very well shouldn’t surprise anyone.

    Just ask your average teenage mall rat to find Mongolia on a map and compare that answer to “Who was the runner up on last seasons’ American Idol.”

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