We have proven beyond any reasonable doubt that digital versions of narrative immersive reading — which I define as books you read from page one to page last — if made reflowable will satisfy the vast majority of the book’s print audience. ...
However, the complementary fact is that we have not yet found a formula that works for any other kind of book. (And with all due respect to Philip Jones of The Bookseller, whose piece on this subject is much more “on point” than the other three, pointing as he does to what Pottermore has done and can do is hardly a prototype for a dedicated book publisher.) How-to books haven’t sold well as ebooks. Reference books haven’t sold well as ebooks. Cookbooks haven’t sold well as ebooks. If you dip in and out; if you rely on illustrations (which maybe should be videos); if your book is just filled with pretty pictures; then there is no formula for a digital version that has demonstrated mass commercial appeal. ...
I first heard Mike say this when we met at BEA 2013, and based on what I had seen I thought he was correct.
If you look at how Vook pivoted from making enhanced ebooks into ebook distribution, or how Coursesmart is propped up by the publishers that own it, or how Kno failed and was sold off for scrap (just to name 3 examples) you tend to get the impression that there are a lot of niches in the ebook market that aren't working out (or I just fell victim to selection bias, which is another possibility).
In fact, I originally sat down to write a post which agreed with Mike's point and called it out for emphasis. But I won't do that, because I'm not sure we're looking at this from the same perspective.
Here is where I disagree with Mike. This is the last sentence of the paragraph snipped above:
There have been successes, but they seem to be novelties (e.g. Touch Press) or on a much smaller scale than would warrant major publishers getting into this business (e.g. a small art press like MAPP Editions can claim success with 1,000 copies sold).
While I agree with Mike in the broad strokes, I'm not so sure that it should matter whether one publisher's success can be replicated at scale by the major publishers. I would be curious to know if success in a niche can be matched by a competing publisher, or by several publishers, but the major publishers are not relevant to my point of view.
To put it another way, let me ask you which is more important: the half dozen largest fish in the publishing pond or the hundreds of smaller fish?
When it comes to the health and viability of a market niche, I tend to think that the latter group is more important - especially when we are in an untried and new era like ebook publishing.
To say that there's no market today for digital products like cookbooks, textbooks, and the like would be like saying in 1978 that there was no market for PCs in the home or school simply because there were only a handful of truly successful models, none of which came from one of the major computer manufacturers (Wikipedia).
Just because IBM's first several attempts at a PC were only marginally successful doesn't mean that someone else, namely Apple, didn't find a market for a PC in 1978. And it's that someone else that we need to be looking at today, not the major publishers.
Or to give you another example, consider the ebook market in 2006. Mike would say that there was no ebook market in 2006, while in reality Baen Books, Fictionwise, and a handful of other pioneers had carved out a market.
Just because (to name one example) Macmillan couldn't figure out how to handle the business of ebooks until early 2009 (that's when they finally started catching up with releasing their backlist) doesn't mean there wasn't an ebook market before 2009.
If someone wants to posit that a market doesn't exist they're going to have to come up with a better argument than "it's too small for the major publishers to bother with". That is simply the wrong scale to work from.
But that's just my two cents; what do you think?