It is customary for those of us who do crystal-ball gazing to make some calls about the year ahead at around the time the celebrants head for Times Square. I am not a man to flout custom. Here are some of the things I expect we’ll see in 2010.
1. At least one major book will have several different enhanced ebook editions. This will result from a combination of circumstances: the different capabilities of ebook hardware and reader platforms, the desire of publishers and authors to justify print-like prices for ebooks, the sheer ability of authors and their fans to do new things electronically, and the dawning awareness that there are at least two distinctly different ebook markets: one just wants to read the print book on an electronic screen and the other wants links and videos and other enhancements that really change the print book experience. (Corrolary prediction: the idea of an enhanced ebook that is only sold “temporarily” in the first window when the book comes out, which has been floated by at least one publisher, will be short-lived. Whatever is made for sale in electronic form will remain available approximately forever. Or, put another way, if you have a product that requires no inventory investment that has a market, you’ll keep satisfying it.)
2. Here come some new retail book outlets, but can publishers afford the risk of selling to them? The growing incidence of bookstore-less cities will provoke the mass merchants to explore a greatly increased title selection inside their stores as a magnet to attract disenfranchised bookstore customers. The early emphasis will be on children’s books and illustrated how-to: books for which there is high value to seeing them before buying them. They might even see this expansion as a margin-booster because if they’re responding to scarcity (as they would be), then discounting might not be as necessary as it is with their bestseller-only strategy now. Publishers will be wary of this new initiative, knowing that it could fail and lead to large returns but it will be on the drawing boards by the end of 2010.
3. Thanks to digital, there is no minimum length for a book anymore. Ebooks that are too short to be print books will become a real factor in ebook sales, opening up new opportunities for publishers but even more for authors. Short fiction is already well established in the romance genre and some major publishers have broken out stories from anthologies as separate items to be sold on Kindle. In 2010, authors and agents will discover that shorter-than-a-book works can be the subject of useful experimentation and learning through electronic publishing and, by the end of the year, it will become a frequently-employed device. Periodical media (newspapers and magazines) will also see this paid delivery mechanism as an alternative worth experimentation for them as well. After all, if a big publisher can unbundle a short story anthology to sell the individual stories as Kindle editons, why couldn’t The New Yorker sell the short fiction it publishes that way as well? This concept has been tipped by the announcement in 2009 than the web site Daily Beast will be delivering shorter books in a timely manner through electronic distribution.
4. Ebooks will require a new industry directory (and it won’t be printed.) Driven by new entrants in the field, self-publishing, and unbundled aggregations of print books, the gap between the items listed in “Books in Print” and the items that should be listed in a directory of “Ebooks Available” will continue to grow. There has been a robust conversation in a corner of the book community about whether all ebook editions need ISBNs, but that’s really only one part of a much larger metadata problem. In 2010 we are likely to see at least one serious effort to deliver a new online directory for ebooks.
5. Big publishers start to match their offerings to their marketing capability. The rearrangement of the big publishers’ IP portfolios will begin in 2010 as they emphasize what they do best: deliver narrative-writing and children’s books to multiple outlets in large quantities. This reshuffle will only begin to be evident in 2010, but we will see small slices of big publishers’ lists sold or licensed to specialist small publishers and we will see the beginnings of genre consolidation among the big publishers, with some publishers beefing up and others exiting romance, science fiction, and mystery. In 2010 the latter will take the form of list growth or cutbacks, not the sale of whole lists to a competitor. We’ll see that in 2011 or 2012.
6. Ebooks become significant revenue contributors for many titles. By the end of 2010, ebook sales will routinely constitute at least 20% of the units moved for midlist and the lower tier of bestsellers and at least 10% of the units for really big bestsellers. (These are predictions for narrative writing; illustrated books and kids’ picture books will lag considerably.)
7. Circumstances will outrun the ebook “windowing” strategy. By the end of 2010, the experiment with “windowing” ebooks — withholding them from release when the hardcover comes out — will end as increasing evidence persuades publishers and agents that ebook sales (at any price) spur print book sales (at any price), not cannibalize or discourage them and, furthermore, that this withholding effort does nothing to restrain Amazon’s proclivity for discounting. (Amazon can’t quit with so many competitors joining them; see number 11 below.) There will also be steadily increasing evidence that most readers distinctly prefer either digital books or paper for their narrative reading and the real minority is the people who routinely read both.
8. In the digital world, geographical territories will be found not to make much sense. The problem of managing territorial rights for ebooks will be a growing problem the industry will have to deal with. As ebook platforms are increasingly separated from dedicated readers (a move even Amazon encourages with its Kindle software working on PCs and iPhones by the beginning of 2010 with more to come throughout the year), people all over the world express their frustration about books they are blocked from obtaining by obsolete rights regimes. With the number of ebook platforms and outlets increasing, it becomes almost impossible to police these rights effectively. Authors with global audiences become increasingly sensitive to the frustration of their fans and, through their agents, lobby for “open markets” for ebooks to solve the problem. US publishers back the idea and smaller market publishers hate it, but by the end of 2010 it is obvious that territorial rights will be relegated to print books only, meaning the end could be in sight for the entire concept of territoriality (but, because of old contracts and lots of national laws, it will be a very long sunset.) Pushing back against this concept might be publishers in countries with large English-language populations (Israel comes to mind, but I know publishers getting offers from Nigeria) who want to carve out a national monopoly for their own local editions in English. But that would be print-only.
9. Authors with clout start looking more like publishers. Some authors who have developed huge followings on Facebook and Twitter and their own blogs start to demonstrate that they can have a serious positive impact on the books of other authors they favor. This leads to a variation on the time-honored practice of getting blurbs and jacket quote-lines as savvy editors and agents suss who the new author-megaphones are and line up to get their support. The prediction for 2010 is that this will start to become obvious. The likely prediction for 2011 will be that this leads to authors becoming quasi-publishers or, perhaps, getting “imprint” deals from established houses to select and promote other people’s writing.
10. The “shakeout” in ebook delivery mechanisms won’t start this year; proliferation rules in 2010. With the arrival of Google Editions in the first or second quarter of 2010, there will be multiple channels to the ebook market through a variety of players: Google, Amazon, Apple, Baker & Taylor’s Blio, Kobo (formerly Shortcovers, the ebook operation begun by Indigo of Canada), and Sony will not be alone! During the course of 2010, the industry will become aware that there are three moving parts here: the device ebooks are viewed on, the ebook “reader” software the device employs, and the retailing and merchandising experience for the consumer shopping (or searching) for a particular book. As it becomes clear that ebook readers employ multiple devices and can accept a variety of platforms, the shopping experience will become appreciated as the most important determinant of consumer loyalty for most books. This is a moving target; everybody will be working on it. But as we enter 2010, it looks like Kobo has figured this out better (so far) than anybody else.
11. Retailers will demonstrate that they have more at stake with each file they sell than the revenue from that sale. Because there are so many players fighting for a foothold in ebooks, discounting them deeply will be the “new normal.” This will enable publishers to keep their “established” retail price (and their revenue per unit sold) high, but consumers will increasingly see ebooks as the less expensive alternative.
12. We will see greater integration of ebook offerings with other products and services. The merchandising challenge for ebooks will ultimately be met web page by web page over the entire Internet. This future paradigm will be tipped in 2010 when we start to see ebook stores on more and more non-book web sites, each trying to deliver some sort of value-add with curation or follow-on products.
13. Book publishers will have to admit to real confusion about what the product is that they produce. The big meme coming out of 2010 will be “what is a book?” Publishers will increasingly be releasing productions that contain video, audio, animation, slide shows, and interactive game elements. Movie, TV, and game producers will see an alternate marketing and revenue channel available through “ebookifying” content they have and moving it through book channels like a “tie-in.” Where one stops and the other begins will become increasingly difficult to see (and increasingly irrelevant).