The Shatzkin Files


Ebook growth explosive; serious disruptions around the corner


The news about trade ebook sales growth continues apace. The IDPF has just said that sales in June 2009 were up 136% over June a year ago. Calendar year sales to date are up about 150% over 2008.

Anecdotal information from big trade houses suggests that ebook sales are approaching 3% of total sales. But not all the books big houses sell are “ebookable” with current technology: much of the juvie list, most illustrated books, and books where tabular or graphic material is important might well not have been made into ebooks. So the number is larger, maybe 5% or 6%, of the straight narrative books. And because not all of everybody’s backlist is yet available in ebooks, sometimes because of rights issues and sometimes because it just hasn’t been digitized yet, the number is higher for straight narrative new titles. So maybe that’s at 8%. Now!

And the chart of the sales trend that IDPF shows would certainly suggest we’re still seeing accelerating growth. There’s no reason to think that will stop; in fact, there is every reason to think the growth will gain additional impetus. New reading devices are coming and new features are coming for existing devices. Growth in ebook uptake to now was achieved with no help from the biggest purveyor of consumer books: Barnes & Noble. Now they’re jumping in to the pool with both feet. They have announced a partnership with Plastic Logic on one new reader and there is a rumor they will have another one of their own.

And the Apple tablet is going to be a reality, which many people think could be a Kindle killer. It won’t be, but it will surely be a Kindle challenger and it will grow the market in various ways, including making good ebooks from a lot of books that weren’t good candidates with the previously available screens.

The market is still dominated by Amazon and by Kindle, which may be selling 70% of the trade ebooks at the moment. Publishers are saying that seeing 50% of Amazon sales on a title in Kindle is not unusual. On most big books it is 30 or 40 percent and rising.

It has been reported that this is going to be a big Fall for big books: the late Michael Crichton, Pat Conroy, Jon Krakauer, Dan Brown, E.L. Doctorow, Margaret Attwood, John Irving, Philip Roth, Barbara Kingsolver and many others will have books hitting the shelves between now and Christmas.

If that has any effect on ebook reading, it should be a spur. Of the 90+% of book readers who do not (yet) read ebooks, some know they will, but they just haven’t started yet. Since ebooks are cheaper than their hardcover counterpart, sometimes — given the price wars taking place among retailers — a lot cheaper, the plethora of hot new books should be a merchandising tool to sell devices and to get people who already have ereadable devices like iPhones to try this new way of consuming print content.

And then we have another piece of news: that Sony is pushing its partnership with Content Reserve to boost use of Sony Readers by libraries.

When we get to the point that the ebook share of a new book is consistently 25% or more, we will start to see real strain on many aspects of today’s business model. And we can expect to reach that point before Obama runs for reelection, perhaps in the next 18 months. I don’t want to try to get into answers in this post; it’s enough to just think about the questions. Consider…

1. Bestseller lists. Right now ebook sales don’t get added into bestseller list numbers. With Kindle sales (by our informal estimate) constituting about 70% of ebook sales and no apparent inclination by Amazon to report those sales, that’s a hole that will exist for a while. With all the big books coming this Fall, publishers will have a chance to see how ebook sales vary by author, genre, pricing, and ebook release strategy. Will authors whose audiences switch to ebooks faster be punished on the bestseller list as a result?

2. Library sales. From the beginning, Content Reserve — the principal provider of ebooks to libraries, the power behind Baker & Taylor’s ebook provision and now in partnership with Sony Reader — has attempted to replicate the printed book world with a model that requires libraries to buy the number of copies they want to lend simultaneously. So if a library wants to lend 100 copies of the new Dan Brown at the same time (assuming it is available as an ebook), they’ll have to buy 100 ebooks. But what is not factored into the current model is that print books wear out. A library can only lend a print book X number of times before pages start to fall out. Replacement stock wouldn’t be part of the (current) ebook model. (In fact, with the new Sony deal for readers in libraries, it is the hardware that will wear out, so Sony, not the publishers, will get the replacement stock business.)

3. Library sales again. In the print book world, you have to go to the library to get a book and then go back to the library to return it. In the ebook world, you go to one web site to download the book for free and another one to download it and pay. Consumers are bound to notice. How will publishers that are spending a lot of money and time chasing down pirate copies respond to that?

4. Market fragmentation. Amazon is 15 to 30 percent of a book’s sale; somewhat less when the book has big distribution through mass merchants and somewhat more if a book is long tail and hardly available except on the Internet. That number is rising. They are perhaps 70% of ebook sales. How long will it be before an author says to publishers “I’ve handled Amazon. Would you like to offer me a contract for the rest of the market?” And with another big chunk at another single retailer, Barnes & Noble, an author’s agent could make two deals and get half the potential market. Won’t that be an enormous temptation?

5. Health of the brick-and-mortar channel. As ebook sales climb, many of those sales will be cannibalizing print book sales (although our friends at O’Reilly say that isn’t happening yet; at least not for computer books.) That would suggest we will see declining sales through stores in the years to come. But stores are the publishers’ most important marketing and merchandising tool. If we do start to see narrative books selling 20% or more as ebooks, what can publishers do to help save brick-and-mortar shelf space? What can the stores do?

6. Pricing and timing. There is uneasiness among publishers about simultaneous ebook release, based on the the bestseller list problem, the bookstore preservation challenge, and the intense ebook pricing competition that is driving prices to the consumer far below wherever the publisher tries to set them. At least one publisher has held back the ebook of an important title for several months as a result. The view from here is that the right strategy is the opposite: get the ebook out as fast as possible to get word of mouth going before the print books hit the stores. (We’re not advocating holding back the print book here; just acknowledging the reality that printing, binding, and shipping take time and the book is “finished” when the PDF is finished.) What’s the right practice? Or does it, like so much in the trade business, “depend on the book?”

7. Ebook royalties. The author can get 85% from Smashwords (OK: no DRM, no merchandising, and not really a big league player…yet; but will it stay that way?); 80% from Scribd; 35% of sale price from Kindle. There are bound to be models also paying much higher than publisher royalties coming from B&N and from Indigo’s Shortcovers. How long will publishers be able to hold the line at 15% of retail or 25% of net, where ebook royalties are now. (Random House UK is trying to hold the line at lower numbers than that!)

8. New publishing models. When ebooks can routinely be 20% or more of a book’s sale, they can be 40% or 50% on many titles. The capital risk of publishing an ebook is a fraction of what is required to publish a print book. New entities are forming built around that reality; how long will it be before conventional publishers try an ebook-only, or ebook-first, approach on some titles? (Random House US is already publishing a number of Kurt Vonnegut short stories as ebooks only, where shorter content at a low price can be practical.)

The strategic thinkers at the big publishing houses, retailers, and literary agencies certainly have a lot on their plate.

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