On eBooks Being a Dead Format

From The Digital Reader:

Have you ever had one of those moments where you kinda sorta agree with someone’s conclusion and yet still disagree with many of the assumptions that lead to the conclusion?

That’s how I feel towards a piece published in The Bookseller earlier today.

Simon Rowberry argues that ebooks aren’t dead, but his arguments betray legacy industry biases. For example, he cavalierly tosses off the assumption that $10 ebook prices are unsustainable.

The fall in revenue from ebooks is a direct consequence of legacy publishers’ prioritization of print sales at the expense of digital books. The Kindle’s North American launch in 2007 marketed new ebook titles at $9.99, a discount of at least $10 on the hardback equivalent. This approach was unsustainable, but it set readers’ expectations for the cost of ebooks.

What’s funny about this assumption are the many indie authors who would disagree, or the publishers like Baen Books that price all of their ebooks under $10.

Baen Books has been selling its ebooks at what Rowberry would describe as an unsustainable price for close to twenty years, and yet they have somehow managed to pull it off.

And that’s not the only data that Rowberry  didn’t include. A little earlier in the piece he cites stats from the UK PA and then vaguely hand waves at reasons why the data is incomplete:

But despite the early promise of the ebook, many are questioning whether it has lived up to these expectations. In recent years, the ebook has faced significant backlash amid reports of declining sales in trade publishing. The Publishing Association Yearbook 2016 noted a 17% slump in the sale of consumer ebooks while physical book revenue increased by 8%. Over the last couple of years, audiobooks have replaced ebooks as digital publishing’s critical darling on the back of a rapid increase in revenue. In this climate, several commentators have asked “how ebooks lost their shine.”

The ‘ebook plateau’ argument also ignores emergent sectors of digital-only sales, including self-publishing, where new genres drive a vibrant and divergent market. Amazon facilitates most self-publishing sales, and the company steadfastly refuses to provide sales data for books published exclusively on the Kindle. So a potential increase in sales for emergent digital-only genres is hidden by the headlines about traditional publishers.

Yeah, the data is only obscured if you refuse to go looking for it.

I am referring of course the Author Earnings Report and the pseudonymous Data Guy (who does answer press queries about the latest data).

We know exactly the limits of the stats from the PA (it misses 38% of the UK ebook market), and that is the point that Rowberry should have made.

. . . .

He actually think the legacy industry could kill off ebooks:

For the moment, reports of the ebook’s death are exaggerated. If the disinterest of Amazon and resistance from the book trade continue, however, there is a chance that the ebook is killed off – in my view, prematurely.

While an industry can refuse to supply the market with what the market wants, that industry cannot kill that want.

And in the case of digital goods, it cannot prevent consumers from adopting the digital goods – they’ll just turn to someone else to supply the content.

Link to the rest at The Digital Reader 

For a thought experiment, consider an alternative history in which printed books did not exist and ebooks are the only way books have been distributed/sold/read. As with today’s conditions, tablets, ereaders and computers are in wide use.

In that history, if someone invented the printed book and was promoting it as an alternative to ebooks, what would the reaction of the publishing industry be?

Printed books are far too expensive to produce, distribute and sell. Readers will never accept the size and weight of a printed book compared to their ereading devices.

Where will printed books be stored? Thousands of ebooks take up a bit of disk space while the same number of printed books will consume vast physical spaces that could otherwise be used for far more productive purposes.

And the forests! Think of the devastating impact on thousands of acres of beautiful trees!

19 thoughts on “On eBooks Being a Dead Format”

  1. I’m waiting for Data Guy to give some real numbers soon-it’s been some time, hasn’t it? What galls me about this piece is how skewed a data set the writer used to come up with this half baked drivel.

    • He left us with a cliffhanger in the February report:

      Almost all of the recent “Small/Medium Publisher” gains appear to be driven exclusively by one particular narrow subcategory of publishers, which is now seeing explosive growth in their ebook sales.

      Hint: it’s not whom you think…

      The only hint as to what he meant came in the comments:

      I’m talking about a particular type of publisher, not a particular genre or subgenre.

      Not trying to be deliberately mysterious here; it’s just that I need to dig deeper into the data before I’m comfortable making definitive statements about this.

      Basically, I first need to spend some time categorizing the thousands of different publisher imprints in the “Small/Medium Publisher” category into smaller subcategories. And then I need to look at how sales have trended for each of those subcategories over the last 3 years worth of quarterly reports, to determine if this is a recent shift or a longer term trend.

  2. So true, PG.

    I can’t understand why they are so tied to paper/hard when ebook is FREE. How can they not be doing a happy dance?
    I kind of get that they have marketing relations with physical bookstores but it’s all profit.
    How can that not be the most obvious decision to run with the new tech?

      • But it’s a shrinking market. So rather than squeeze it and try to pretend you can squeeze it out of existence, embrace it.

        If it’s, as you say, they see themselves as a tiny fish in big pond in ebooks. So they will hold tight to the tiny pond where they are the big fish in paper.
        They are going to be stuck in a smaller and smaller pond.

        it’s not logical to me. especially where paper is so expensive, in every way.

    • You are correct in all of your statements, but you’re missing the most important part.

      It has nothing to do with ebooks – not a thing. What it has to do with is power and control.

      They want as many readers as possible to stay with paper because that ebook of yours is too easy.

      Anyone can bang out some words and sell it as an ebook. Anyone.

      And trad-publishing has no power to stop them and no control over which readers might see them and when. Oh, and the reader pays for something they can’t get a cut of …

      The back quarter of the trad-pub Titanic has just snapped off, and while much lower in the water, the front three quarters is for the moment a little more level. So let’s rearrange the deckchairs one last time as the band plays taps to those dang ebooks.

      • I see it as capital and I think they’ve squandered a good portion of it.
        There are still authors that ‘must have’ a trad pub deal to feel legit but that group gets smaller.
        I think trad pubs only hope is if they can keep writers thinking we need them.

        Regardless of whether trad pub can get readers to think they need print books, the authors are leaving. What will the trad pubs print on the paper bk market they used to own, since they no longer own the author?

        It’s still emerging times but overdrive is available to us so we can get into libraries.
        Bookstores are having trouble making a profit. maybe trad pub still owns that market over indies, but with that crazy return policy- I’m sure more and more authors will stop wanting to sell their copyrights for the privilege of being spine out in a bookstore for a few weeks and then returned.

        For me, I’m not interested even from just an environmental standpoint of all the trees destroyed to then just get returned.

        Now, back in the beginning, if they’d pivoted and embraced ebooks, they’d probably still be The Thing. Maybe it would have happened regardless. But they’ve squandered their whole lead.

        Today, it’s not ‘I need a trad pub deal to sell bks’. It’s ‘What are u bringing me and I’ll consider it…But it better be good’.

        It’s not that I’ve missed that they want to maintain power and control; it mystifies me that they think this is the way to maintain it.

        What is that quote: “the more you tighten your grip, the more they slip through your fingers”
        ~because star wars 😀

        • Once Amazon (or anybody else) made it easy for non-trad-pub writers to reach the readers it was over – and trad-pub knew it.

          The only way they managed to retain control this long was the high bar of entry, which just isn’t there for ebooks. That’s also the ‘why’ of all this ‘enhanced ebook’ stuff you keep hearing/reading about, just another attempt to raise the bar where the writer again needs trad-pub.

          If they’d embraced ebooks and got people used to reading off a screen it would have only sped them on their way to being unneeded, for now they’re only shafting the writers that made the mistake of signing their contracts.

          The war between Amazon and the qig5 continues, the ones suffering the most are those still stuck in the writer pens, being sheared to the quick by their masters.

    • I would pay for paper books even if ebooks were free, because I’ve found I can’t concentrate at the level necessary to fully absorb fiction for more than the length of a very short story when reading off a screen. But that’s me.

  3. If the disinterest of Amazon and resistance from the book trade continue, however, there is a chance that the ebook is killed off – in my view, prematurely.

    What disinterest of Amazon? What do we observe that leads one to conclude Amazon is disinterested?

    • I think the logic here is that the bought Whole Foods, thus they must not be interested in books anymore. You can see that, right?

  4. “And the forests! Think of the devastating impact on thousands of acres of beautiful trees!”

    Yes, but think of the devastating impact on billions of electrons! What’s a few thousand acres of forestland when so much disk space can be saved?

  5. Somewhere in that article is a tell that would indicate the difference between “propaganda” and “total disconnect from reality”, but I lack the inclination to search for it…

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