From publishing expert Mike Shatzkin:
I have made previous mention of my notion that what has been one very cohesive trade book industry would “trifurcate”: break into at least three distinct businesses: 1) books that are straight narrative text intended for immersive reading; 2) adult books that are not straight text, either very chunkable (like cookbooks or travel books) or highly illustrated; and 3) children’s books. Admittedly, even this is an oversimplification.
This conjecture is built on the reality that we’ve learned how to move immersive reading from paper to screen in a way that satisfies the consumer. A pretty simple technological trick — “reflowing” the text so that it adjusts to the screen size alloted to it — makes the text “work” across a wide range of devices and reader software. There are definitely differences among Kindle and Nook and Kobo and Google and iBooks and they don’t offer precisely the same outputs and features on their own devices or on iOS or Android, but the differences are subtle and apparently most people are comfortable with the various consumption experiences.
So relatively simple conversion from the version prepared for print, which can even be done through automated services like Smashwords or through tools now being offered by The Atavist and Vook (and others), and are handled within the workflows of many publishers at a trivial financial cost, delivers an alternative to the print version of a book that is commercially viable. It isn’t costly, it isn’t complicated, and the person who formerly read her favorite novelist or subject in print could switch to device reading with relatively little pain or friction.
And they have. Ebook consumption has been going up by double or more each year since the Kindle arrived a little over four years ago. (And there is evidence that the growth will continue. Amazon just announced the best Kindle holiday season ever — with over a million Kindle devices sold each week in December and with the single biggest day ever for Kindle book downloads on Christmas Day. — Note “downloads” not “sales”.)
So far, this has worked to the benefit of established book publishers, their authors, and for fledgling new authors as well. Ebooks are generally cheaper than their print counterparts (and sometimes quite a bit cheaper, despite some propaganda to the contrary) but publishers’ margins haven’t suffered. Authors are getting a bit less on ebooks than they did on hardcovers in print, but they get a bit more than they did on paperbacks. There are vocal consumers who protest the agency pricing that keeps ebooks at $9.99 and up during their hardcover life, but Kobo, the only retailer to discuss these matters, reports more unit sales in the agency price bands than at the low end where the self-published authors are.
We would not suggest that stability of prices or royalties or consumer behavior going forward is to be expected; we’re still in a time of great change. But, so far, the publishers of fiction and non-fiction that is delivered as straight text have had a relatively painless switchover from selling 100% of their output in print to selling an average of more than 20% of it in digital form, with shares as high as 50% being reported on some titles in the first weeks after publication.
. . . .
I have been asking publishers about sales of their children’s and illustrated trade material. I haven’t found anybody yet that says they’re going well. On the children’s side, where there have been pockets of success, the one Big Six digital executive who expressed an opinion to me felt that price was killing sales for the ebook versions of successful franchises. Children’s apps from such distributors as Touchy Books are priced quite low, generally $2.99 and less. But many branded titles like Eloise are $9.99 and $12.99 and up! This executive points out that paying that price for a novel you will spend many hours with is much less painful than paying it for a children’s book your kid will work through in 15 minutes or less.
Undoubtedly, another large factor mitigating against converting illustrated print book sales to digital is that ebooks don’t make good gifts and illustrated print books do.
I recently spoke with CEOs of two companies that publish primarily illustrated books. Both of them report being stumped by the challenge of making their illustrated print output into something that will work commercially as an ebook. “Fixed page layout” is the solution du jour, delivering the book page as a unit but where the pinch-and-spread touchscreen technology enables the reader to expand type to make it readable or pictures to make them more visible. Of course, doing that means that the whole page no longer fits on the screen. And that means that the smooth experience devices offer for immersive reading, where page-turning is effortless and one can read the text without stopping to think about the form factor, is interrupted and not nearly as satisfactory for books delivered that way.
More complex page layouts are more expensive to convert, can present thorny rights issues for images, and the books haven’t sold well in digital form. On top of that, the retailers can (and often do) ask for their own specific customization of the files. These factors combine to create a very unattractive commercial equation. Until the Fall of 2011, one ebook retailer told me there were 10,000 or fewer illustrated ebooks in the marketplace, out of a total of many hundreds of thousands, perhaps more than a million, straight text titles. The plethora of larger-screen and color devices that hit the market this past fall created a burst of conversion activity of these titles, perhaps doubling the number in the marketplace during the last quarter. We await reporting on the impact of the new devices and the additional illustrated product in the market, but nobody’s reported any breakout successes yet.
Link to the rest at The Shatzkin Files
Passive Guy thinks the biggest problem with illustrated books is screen size.
There is virtually no difference between the printed size of a trade paperback and the size of a typical ereader screen. However, lots of children’s books and adult illustrated books are much larger. If the iPad doesn’t provide a good experience, PG doesn’t see a good solution for this.
PG would note that comics and graphic novels seem to be doing well in ebook format.