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On eBooks Being a Dead Format

Have you ever had one of those moments where you kinda sorta agree with someone’s conclusion and yet still disagree with many of the assumptions that lead to the conclusion?

That’s how I feel towards a piece published in The Bookseller earlier today.

Simon Rowberry argues that ebooks aren’t dead, but his arguments betray legacy industry biases. For example, he cavalierly tosses off the assumption that $10 ebook prices are unsustainable.

The fall in revenue from ebooks is a direct consequence of legacy publishers’ prioritization of print sales at the expense of digital books. The Kindle’s North American launch in 2007 marketed new ebook titles at $9.99, a discount of at least $10 on the hardback equivalent. This approach was unsustainable, but it set readers’ expectations for the cost of ebooks.

What’s funny about this assumption are the many indie authors who would disagree, or the publishers like Baen Books that price all of their ebooks under $10.

Baen Books has been selling its ebooks at what Rowberry would describe as an unsustainable price for close to twenty years, and yet they have somehow managed to pull it off.

And that’s not the only data that Rowberry  didn’t include. A little earlier in the piece he cites stats from the UK PA and then vaguely hand waves at reasons why the data is incomplete:

But despite the early promise of the ebook, many are questioning whether it has lived up to these expectations. In recent years, the ebook has faced significant backlash amid reports of declining sales in trade publishing. The Publishing Association Yearbook 2016 noted a 17% slump in the sale of consumer ebooks while physical book revenue increased by 8%. Over the last couple of years, audiobooks have replaced ebooks as digital publishing’s critical darling on the back of a rapid increase in revenue. In this climate, several commentators have asked “how ebooks lost their shine.”

The ‘ebook plateau’ argument also ignores emergent sectors of digital-only sales, including self-publishing, where new genres drive a vibrant and divergent market. Amazon facilitates most self-publishing sales, and the company steadfastly refuses to provide sales data for books published exclusively on the Kindle. So a potential increase in sales for emergent digital-only genres is hidden by the headlines about traditional publishers.

Yeah, the data is only obscured if you refuse to go looking for it.

I am referring of course the Author Earnings Report and the pseudonymous Data Guy (who does answer press queries about the latest data).

We know exactly the limits of the stats from the PA (it misses 38% of the UK ebook market), and that is the point that Rowberry should have made.

But that would involve looking beyond the legacy industry. Unfortunately, Rowberry gives the dying part of the traditional publishing industry more credence than it deserves.

He actually think the legacy industry could kill off ebooks:

For the moment, reports of the ebook’s death are exaggerated. If the disinterest of Amazon and resistance from the book trade continue, however, there is a chance that the ebook is killed off – in my view, prematurely.

While an industry can refuse to supply the market with what the market wants, that industry cannot kill that want.

And in the case of digital goods, it cannot prevent consumers from adopting the digital goods – they’ll just turn to someone else to supply the content.

Remember, for the longest time Rowling would not allow Harry Potter ebooks, so people who wanted a Harry Potter ebook simply downloaded a pirated copy.

And need I spell out the early history of the digital music market (back before the iPod, when record labels refused to sell in said market)?

This is the single biggest flaw in Rowberry’s  piece, and it betrays a viewpoint shared by a lot of people in the legacy industry. So many have forgotten that consumers get to decide whether a product, idea, or service succeeds or fails.

The most that an industry can do is to provide what the market wants. If it can’t or won’t then it will be supplanted by another industry that will.

In the case of book publishing, the legacy industry is being replaced by those who will supply either the (fiction) ebooks consumers want, or the (nonfiction) videos and other content that people are using to learn.

Digital isn’t dying – the industry is. (And yes, there is data to back up that claim.)

image via ABC News


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davemich July 25, 2017 um 12:24 am

So, some years ago Amazon announced that they were selling more ebooks than they were print books. But this guy seems to think that Amazon is "disinterested" in ebooks, and publishers "resist" them, so they will just be "killed off".

I’m not seein' it.

I’m also not seeing how this fudgenugget managed to get a job as "lecturer" — essentially an assistant professor — somewhere in Scotland. You would think that someone there would know better.

Mary July 25, 2017 um 9:06 am

He says:
Over the last couple of years, audiobooks have replaced ebooks as digital publishing’s critical darling on the back of a rapid increase in revenue.

This is only one of several places I have seen the inference that audiobooks take the place of e-books. This would be true for those visually impaired and no longer able to read e-books or print. But for the rest of us, they are an additional source, not a replacement. We listen to audiobooks while doing something else, like driving a long commute, and doing yard work or housework. I seriously doubt that most people sit in a chair and listen to an audiobook without another activity going on. So how is this a replacement?

davemich July 25, 2017 um 11:56 am

audiobooks have smaller market share, much smaller, so their growth rate is higher. if all you’re looking at is growth rate, that seems impressive.

Allen F July 25, 2017 um 2:20 pm

The only reason he likes audiobooks at all is because there’s a higher cost to create than ebooks or PoD, thus easier for trad-pub to afford than your average indie/self publisher.

Anyone can 'publish' these days, and the old gatekeepers (and friends) are trying to pretend they still have some control of what the reader can find.

They will adapt or die (my money is on the second.)

Michelle July 25, 2017 um 11:26 pm

Many ebooks now offer the option of purchasing the audiobook (often for a lower price than if buying it on its own) directly after purchasing the ebook. So part of audiobooks rise in share is likely directly related to ebooks. In this case, as well as others mentioned in another comment, audiobooks are definitely NOT a replacement for ebooks.

Reader July 25, 2017 um 11:30 pm

Some years ago I bought a hardbound book at a used bookstore. The book was successful enough to have a movie made of it. I recently found out at the author’s website that its sequel costs either $15 paperback or $5 as an e-book (MOBI or EPUB).

That tells me that digital books aren’t dead- not by a long shot.

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