E-books in the Bardo

How could George Saunders’ new novel about Abraham Lincoln emancipate e-book sales from their abysmal future?


When I was a kid and into my adult life, I have always had a thing for books. As a kid my favorite thing about a book was how smart it made me feel holding it, flipping through the pages like I was reading it, using it to prop up my favorite Star Wars table while vigorously coloring. As an adult, well, it’s just about the same thing.

Apparently, the rest of the greater reading community feels the same way as me. Print unit sales are up 3.3% totally from 2016 and on the rise, and e-book publishing companies are feeling the pressure, and with these numbers, print units of recent publications are flying from the shelves.

Johnathan Stopler, VP of Nielsen Bookscan, found that e-book unit sales from reporting publishers were down 16% in 2016 from 2015. Much of that decline, according to Jim Milliot of publishersweekly.com, comes from e-books increasing their prices and e-readers becoming obsolete to app developer’s putting everything on tablets and smart phones. Stopler found that, in the first quarter of 2011, more than 70% of e-book buyers said they used dedicated e-book devices to read, a percentage that fell to 24% in the second quarter of 2016.

With great fiction-in-a-flash apps like Great Jones Street Press— the Netflix of literary fiction— on the rise, it is hard to see any more e-reader screens lighting up any time soon.



But with all of the newfangled technology keeping us glued to our screens, it seems that we still have love for hard covers because George Saunders’ premiere novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, sits as a Best Seller for Random House Books and the New York Times Best Seller List.

Lincoln in the Bardo is about Abraham Lincoln’s journey through a purgatory-like underworld— that’s the Tibetan “in-between” known as the bardo—  to find his recently deceased son, Willie. What is the most interesting thing about this novel is that it is not only a stellar novel, but Saunders is transcending an even older form with a new addition to his print unit sales.

George Saunders’ genius rendition of his star-studded audio book may be the saving grace of e-books and could help save the e-book industry from its own trip into the bardo.

The cast of the audio book includes names like Nick Offerman, Don Cheadle, Megan Mullally, and Bill Hader add their voices to a dramatic reading of Saunders’ 368-page novel. The big names in the recording and its dramatic reading are Saunders’ way of transcending a form that we consume books.


According to Laura Dawson of publishersweekly.com, “What the consumer seems to want, in terms of bundling, is an e-book–audio package. Almost since Amazon bought Audible in 2008, it has been exploring ways to pair Audible files with Kindle books.”

Dawson believes that audio books may be the way that e-books can come back from their massive losses in 2016.

Here is Saunders’ new approach to the audio book and the possibilities of the fully-immersive experience of the novel and audio book combined which brings hope that maybe there will be a way out of the Tibetan purgatory of low sales.

Lincoln in the Bardo can be found wherever books are sold, and the audio book can be found on Audible.com.


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