The Rise, Fall and Eventual Rise Again of eBooks

ebookIt was only about five years ago that the world – and me – decided that print books were going the way of vinyl records. In the mid 2000s, the technology that make e-ink screens possible was finally viable for mass production.

Soon after, Amazon released the Kindle, and ebooks went mainstream. Between 2008 and 2011, ebook sales rose 1,260 percent in the US alone. Game over. Independent bookshops, chains and printers stood in fear, waiting for the final death call.

But it never came. It was a close-run thing. Sales were skyrocketing, and in the US, the collapse of bookstore Borders (which filed for bankruptcy in 2011) seemed to signal the very end.

Then the numbers went the other way. Since then, paper-based books have slowly moved back into the mainstream. By this year – 2015 – people like me said ebooks would overtake sales of print. But it didn’t happen. There was something of a plot twist to this story, that I never saw coming. Book stores – including those independent chains – are stronger and more vibrant today than any time before 2010. The American Booksellers Association says they’ve got 1,712 members stores today, compared to 1,660 in 2010. Today, ebooks occupy about 20 percent of the market. That’s about the same market share in 2012. What happened?

I’ve heard a lot of publishers (and authors who have bought this line too) say it’s simply because readers prefer “real” books. And so digital is at 20 percent, and will stay at 20 percent. The market has spoken. I don’t quite buy this. I think there were two reasons why ebooks sales have slumped: one short(er)-term reason to do with a temporary technology disruption from another market, and a longer-term reason to do with corporatism on behalf of the big traditional book-publishing industry.

Let’s look at the first of those. The first mainstream ebook reader in the US, the Amazon Kindle, cost hundreds of dollars when it was first released in the American market. But it sold well. As is pretty much always the case with technology, the prices quickly went down and the features improved. But it’s just an e-ink screen right? So the improvements were incremental. The real push is to lower the cost. Today in the UK, the basic Kindle, (which is much better than the first generation model ever was), will set you back just £59. Adjusted for inflation, that’s a heck of a drop compared to the first model released in 2008. Most ebooks were usually cheaper than their hardback versions, and paperback editions too. Makes sense really. I mean, there’s not a lot of cost involved in the mass-distrubtion of a file that’s typically only a couple of megabytes big, compared to the printing and distribution of a paper-based product. Amazon made big gains with its cheap $9.99 price guarantee for bestsellers (which, because publishers didn’t have the big costs associated with mass printing and distribution, meant that they also actually made more money from the sales of the cheaper ebook versions).

Then a bit of marketplace disruption occurred. In 2010, Steve Jobs revealed Apple’s iPad. “The Kindle’s been great,” he told the enthralled audience at the keynote speech, revealing the tablet to the world for the first time, “but now we’re gonna take it further.” Stephen Fry upon recording his first impressions of the iPad, couldn’t help but write “…poor Kindle.” Tablets had been around for decades, but the iPad was the first tablet computer that captured the imagination of the mainstream. It was a big success, and dozens of rival manufactures brought out their own tablets (including Amazon, with their Kindle Fire range).

Suddenly, in 2010, millions of customers faced a choice. Buy a Kindle (or other e-reader) for, say, $250, or an iPad for $399. Yeah, the iPad is more expensive, but it can do a lot more an a e-reader, which is after all, a uni-tasking device. And the iPad can read books too. Jobs gave a demo of iBooks, and even Amazon produced a Kindle app, so you could read your purchases on the device. Most people, at the time, weren’t going to buy both devices given the prices, so they bought one. And that was the iPad they bought. Or, other, often cheaper Android/Microsoft-based rivals.

But there’s a problem. Reading a book on a bright computer screen – like an iPad – is not the same as reading it on an e-ink screen. The e-ink screen looks like, well, a page. Just printed text on paper. A regular screen is like staring at your laptop. After a while, holding a bigger, heavier, glaring screen to read a text-based book (like a novel or biography) just put people off. So they stopped buying ebooks, and, rather than buying an ebook reader, moved back to paper-based medium. Once bitten, twice shy.

I think this is a short-term issue. But, judging by how slowly the book industry moves, short-term might be 15-25 years. Based on current pricing, I think that the business model of the Kindle could end up being that Amazon will release it for free (“get a free e-ink Kindle for every 5 ebooks you buy!”). So people can have loads of them, all over the house. If you drop one or leave it on the bus, no matter. You can get another for next-to-nothing, and remote-wipe the one you’ve lost/damaged. This ‘free’ ubiquitous attitude will slowly bring people back to ebooks. The rise of people – some of which are very talented – self-publishing on the Kindle Digital Platform, through Barnes & Noble’s platform, Google, or iBooks through iTunes Producer, can also play a part as we see more and more cheap and readily available work. Think about it, the beauty of this, is even if you’re a first-time self-published author, the fact that you’re able to sell as many books (with no upfront risk or cost) as John Grisham is a really exciting and revolutionary thing. Getting it noticed by the public, especially with lots of people releasing utter garbage remains a challenge.

The second problem I see is a trickier one, that could stop things moving forward for a century or more. This is corporatism on the part of the major book publishers. Once the ebook reader arrived, they could see that with nimble, smart, savvy new writers (think E.L. James et al), soon, publishing a book just by yourself could become the “done” thing, even for well-established writers. If Stephen King publishes a book as a hardcover for $19.99, he could see $3 of it. If he were to publish it himself (paying for an editor, cover designer, etc. himself), he could sell it for, say $5, and still make the same $3 off every sale, regardless of how many copies sell, with no risk of doing an overly-ambitious print-run. And at that price, he’d shift many more books.

The big book publishers saw this as a scary future, one to be avoided if possible. Amazon’s $9.99 Kindle bestsellers deal in the US is over, and the publishers are in charge again now. And they’re charging much more for their ebooks than they were a few years ago, (making them less competitive and attractive to readers) while also doing all they can to lower the price of print-book production through innovations and economies of scale. Hachette boosted their Indiana warehouse by 218,000 square feet last year. Penguin Random House have coughed up $100 million to expand and update its wearhorse operations, with 365,000 square feet added in 2014 to its (already huge) warehouse in Crawfordsville Indiana, doubling its size. The boys and girls at Simon & Schuster are set to do the same to their distribution facility in New Jersey: it’s going to be 200,000 square feet larger.

Why the big investment? Because they can put a stranglehold on this business. At the moment, if people mostly buy print books, then big publishers will remain in charge as the gatekeepers, getting their percentage for every copy sold. Because of these expansions and distribution improvements, it’s now often cheaper to buy a paperback version of a book than the ebook version.

I hope this doesn’t last, but I’m not optimistic. I really like publishers, especially the one’s I’ve mentioned above. But I don’t like what they’re doing here. I envisaged a future for big publishers as representing new talent (and established talent), using their incredible editorial, marketing and promotional skills to be champions of quality. Just because “anyone” can self-publish wouldn’t mean they should. There would be a big market – a demand – for publishers who burrow and forage, looking for the best talent out there, and bringing it to our attention. Yes, the margins could be lower for publishers on a per-book basis, but not having to guess what sort of a print-run etc. they have to do would mean the risk is lower too. And they could invest more time not in building ever-bigger factories, but in nurturing more and more talent.

They’d be so important in this brave future. But I fear (and hope I’m wrong) that they could keep things the way they are for the next century and more, before the number of talented self-published writers tilt the playing-field.

 

But don’t forget, you can buy all of my books – both in print and digitally – here! (Sorry, couldn’t resist the chance to cheapen this article with a plug!)

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