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The "eBooks Are Dead" Nonsense Has Spread to Australia

If there’s one constant in the news industry it’s that there’s no end to bad coverage on any given topic, including ebooks. Sometimes the bad reporting is the result of journalists not taking the time  to understand the data, while other times publications such as The Guardian have bashed ebooks so frequently and consistently that you can infer their editorial policy.

And then there are the pieces where the reporter invests time and energy in being massively wrong. These pieces will repeat myths like "screen fatigue", misreport industry data, cite unreliable sources, and quote people who have an axe to grind.

The Australian tabloid just published one such piece. Frank Chung first interviews one of Amazon’s competitors, Booktopia founder Tony Nash, but rather than rebut Nash’s claims, Chang then digs up all the usual nonsense to support the claim that ebooks are dead.

Chang misreported AAP publisher revenue data as market sales, then went on to cite predictions from the notoriously unreliable Cooper (the firm that, for 3 years running, claimed ebook sales would exceed print sales 4 years out).

E-books, however, make up a tiny fraction of Booktopia’s sales. “E-book (sales are) small for us, really only around 1 per cent,” Mr Nash said.

“E-books are declining around the world, including Amazon. Sales are really not going to be as big as everyone thought they would be.”

He attributes that partly to screen overload. “They say, ‘I have too much screen time, I want to shut down my phone, shut down my computer, I just want to sit down with a book’,” he said.

“It’s a very different entertainment experience and process. That’s part of it. The other thing is that a lot of e-books are self-published authors and just the quality of the book is not as good.”

Data from the American Association of Publishers show e-book sales between January and October last year were 3.1 per cent lower than the same period in 2017.

While e-book sales for the month of October edged higher, the long-term trend has been down. In October 2014 e-book sales were $US126.6 million, compared with $US87.1 million in October 2018, a 31 per cent decline.

The figures are similar in Australia, where PwC expects sales of e-books to fall 31 per cent from $204 million in 2017 to $140 million in 2022.

What really gets me about this kind of story isn’t the bad reporting so much as that there is an actual story being obscured by all this nonsense.

Booktopia isn’t selling ebooks, but they are selling a fair number of print books. Why did things turn out that way? What are the technical and other constraints that are limiting Booktopia’s ebook sales? What innovations is Booktopia using to grow online print sales, and why don’t they work for ebooks?

If Chang had answered those questions, he would have a piece worth reading.  What he published, not so much.


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Randy Lea March 25, 2019 um 10:47 am

The claim is made that ebook sales are falling for Amazon, where did that come from? Is that only large publishers?

Also there are two points of interest. One is ebook sales, the second is ebooks read. Does Australia have a significant library ebook system like Overdrive?

Nate Hoffelder March 25, 2019 um 12:07 pm

I don’t know the answer to either question, but those are questions that Change could have asked, yes.

Darryl March 25, 2019 um 8:21 pm

To answer the questions, the first claim, that Amazon ebook sales are down, seems to have either been created out of thin air, though it is possible that there is some very questionable undisclosed source. Amazon does not release such information. Author earnings is unfortunately no longer publishing its projections. However, the little information that is available indicates that Amazon ebook sales are increasing. I would guess that Big 5 ebook sales are down due to their pricing, but Indie sales and KU are booming and more than making up for this.

As to the last question, Australia has an excellent public library system which has invested heavily in ebooks. Most libraries are using Overdrive, but many use another service in addition, often Cloud Library. Some have a number of ebook services. Unfortunately, like everywhere outside the US, there is no option to borrow for Kindle in Australia. Overdrive and other services use epubs or pdf’s only and Adobe DRM. Amazon has in any event chosen not to make its ebooks available to libraries. Even in the US borrowing of ebooks is basically limited to tradpub and public domain titles.

I haven’t seen recent statistics relating to Ebooks in Australia. Amazon certainly does not currently have the dominance here that it does in the US. The last figure I saw for ebook "penetration" was around 15%, which means there is significant scope here for the ebook market to grow. Anecdotally libraries are seeing a significant growth in demand for ebooks. Also anecdotally, I surmise that the market for dedicated readers is divided between Amazon and Kobo. Both have significant share, though I could not estimate the proportions. Kobo is assisted here to some unknown extent by the ability to read library books. I’m not sure where Apple fits, though there are probably more than a few who read ebooks on their Apple devices, though I expect Apple is a relatively minor player so far as ebooks are concerned.

Hrafn March 26, 2019 um 12:54 am

Booktopia doesn’t list total book vs ebook range stats on their site, but they do have them for Science Fiction (generally an ebook stronghold). They have 65k books on sale vs only 11k ebooks, i.e. only 18% of the number of books (13% for Fantasy ebooks). If their range is considerably smaller, it isn’t surprising that their sales are tiny.

Nate Hoffelder March 26, 2019 um 7:14 am

That’s probably the lead reason why they sell fewer ebooks, then.

Should I have checked that, do you think?

Hrafn March 26, 2019 um 11:23 pm

Only if you’re a compulsive number-cruncher like I am. 😉

Kate Stead March 27, 2019 um 10:33 pm

This article annoyed me so much that I had to refute it on social media. Means that when we talk to our friends about publishing ebooks they pull out rubbish like this. Trust me that most Australian’s are not as laser focused on print as Booktopia would suggest.

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