A few things worthy of a pre-Thanksgiving comment have passed in front of my eyeballs in the past few days.
1. Sainsbury’s, one of the big supermarket chains in Britain, has announced that it will open a digital download store before Christmas. They’re starting with movies and music, but plan to expand to ebooks before long.
The working assumption has been that Amazon, Apple, and Google (even though Google Editions hasn’t launched yet) would be the major global players for ebook distribution. Barnes & Noble has taken significant market share in the US, putting them second in sales to Amazon at the moment. There are rumors that B&N is going to start competing globally before long; it would certain make sense for them to do that. (Perhaps B&N’s aggregation of books in Spanish is a step in that direction.) Sony and Kobo are already active all over the world; Copia intends to be and they have just opened for business.
But if Sainsbury’s wants to be in this business, so might mass merchants in every other corner of the globe. We had already had our eyes opened by a French publisher who expressed his fervent hope that local French book retailers would carry English-language ebooks. His reasoning was very simple. Since Amazon, Apple, and Google would be carrying ebooks in French as well as English, the local merchants won’t be competitive unless they carry English as well as French.
There is a tendency in some quarters to declare the ebook wars over and that somebody (usually Amazon or Apple is the one annointed) has “won.” It is important to remember that ebooks have about 10% pentration in the US and less than 1% everywhere else (except, as we’ll see below, China). Many more players will be competing for the ninety-something-percent of the 2015 world’s ebook readers that haven’t tried it yet.
2. A story in China Daily puts the Chinese digital publishing business at $12 billion and at more than half of the Chinese book business. I have some immediate skepticism about these numbers since the US book business (all in: trade plus school plus college plus professional plus anything else you can think of) is only $30 billion and the US ebook business was just estimated by Forrester to be $1 billion. For China’s book business to be 80% or more of ours in total and for China’s digital publishing business to be 12 times ours seems very unlikely, if not impossible. Who knows what errors of methodology or currency conversion could explain these numbers? (I surely don’t.) But half digital is a powerful statement, even if the comparison with the US can’t be right.
The fact that China has moved so fast to digital opens up another line of thought to me: how translation might work in the future. Google Translate doesn’t deliver you a publishable version of anything. But it does deliver an intelligible version that a good writer or editor can turn into something publishable pretty quickly. How long can it be before a combination of Google Translate and a single literate person is delivering a perfectly acceptable translation of anything to anybody who can afford the single literate person?
(Added after publication: you’ll see a comment below pointing out that the statistics in the China Daily article referred to all publishing in China, not just book publishing. That makes the figures make more sense. It also means that much of what appears in the two paragraphs above has been mooted, except that Google Translate plus one good editor can deliver a readable version of anything in any language.)
3. Sarah Weinman, who is one of the more acute analysts of the commercial realities of digital publishing, just wrote a piece wondering whether the iBookstore is actually working. She suggests that iBookstore is trailing both Amazon Kindle and B&N Nook by a considerable amount in sales. She has data from one particular book for which the ebook sales were about 60% Amazon, 26% B&N, and only 6% iBookstore. When I asked a few publishers how those percentages broke down about four months ago, they put Amazon closer to 50% than 60% and put B&N and iBookstore pretty close to each other. The iBookstore, which I call the Walden or B. Dalton mall store of ebooks, has been a head-scratcher for me. They have far fewer titles than their competitors: Amazon, B&N, and Kobo. While they do a nice job of title presentation for the bestsellers, their lack of breadth is evident if you do any kind of subject or genre search. Meanwhile, Amazon’s very tough position (so far) resisting agency for any but the biggest publishers makes it very difficult for smaller publishers to put books in the iBookstore without exposing themselves to the danger of conflicting contracts and a downward spiral of revenue if Amazon decides to discount their books. (I have been told lately by two small entities that they’re going to get agency terms from Amazon; one actually wonders why Amazon would permit that right now since their current strategy seems to be working to keep the iBookstore uncompetitive on title breadth.)
On the other hand, it has been pointed out by others that iBookstore is going to develop a big offshore following. The iPad is making inroads abroad faster than Kindle and Apple’s iBookstore is the only book purchasing experience that comes already loaded on the iPad device.
I would never expect iBookstore to go away, but I do wonder whether it will be a significant force in ebook retailing, ever in the US and, in the long run, anywhere, unless they are willing to back off on requiring agency terms from smaller publishers. Or unless Amazon will back off on requiring wholesale to that same cohort.
4. PW reported yesterday that HarperCollins is shutting down its ebookstore. While there could be any number of factors at play, one has to assume that sales were not robust. The guess from here is that the problem of not enough traffic from consumers is going to be a generic problem for general trade publishers. You can only get traffic as a horizontal aggregator if you are a complete horizontal aggregator. iBookstore can’t do it with a fraction of the titles that Amazon and Barnes & Noble have and neither can a publisher.
With our good friends at Market Partners International, we’ve just launched a questionnaire on Survey Monkey to learn from agents what ebook deals they’re making with publishers. We’ll balance our inputs by interviewing publishers on the same subject before Connie Sayre of MPI and I deliver what we’ve learned at Digital Book World in January. If you’re an agent and you haven’t received an invitation to participate in this effort, contact Jess Johns at Idea Logical ([email protected]) and she’ll get you included.