Does the e-book sales plateau represent the digital divide?

Does the e-book sales plateau represent the digital divide?

This

American Libraries article by Alan S. Inouye

is one of the most insightful and interesting articles I’ve ever read on the current state and future of e-books.

It gets answers from four experts to a series of questions…and I found each of them worth reading.

I’ll pause for a moment for you to make the emotional commitment to read that article.

Ready? Good.😉

I wanted to focus on one inference I drew from what was said.

After the introduction of the Kindle in 2007, the growth in the e-book market (which had been, to use a technical term, teeny tiny before that), was remarkable.

It was faster than the growth of some other digital media markets.

I thought that e-books would clearly dominate within about five years (and I speak as a former manager of a brick-and-mortar bookstore, and someone with something like 10,000 paperbooks on shelves in my home).

I was wrong…but I may also have been right.

First, I have to say that we may not really know how many books being obtained in the USA are e-books. The issue is that it was and still is much easier to tell how many books are sold by the traditional publishers (tradpubs) than it is by indies (independents).

Many, possibly most, e-books sold by independents are sold through Amazon…and Amazon is notably reticent to release actual sales figures.

It may be that we are able to measure reasonably well the e-books sold by tradpubs versus the p-books (paperbooks) they sell, and that we simply aren’t able to reliably measure the e-books sold by indies. The USA Kindle store typically averages adding well over a thousand titles a day…and a tiny percentage of those are from tradpubs.

However…

Let’s go from the assumption that our ability to measure that hasn’t gotten significantly worse, and that e-book sales have actually slowed down…maybe even having plateaued (stabilized).

Why would that have happened?

I hadn’t really thought about it this way before reading the article, but maybe what happened is that the market of serious readers (one person in the article refers to them as “core readers”) has overwhelmingly converted to e-books…and casual readers haven’t.

That makes sense.

E-books, especially in the beginning, required an investment.

People tended to buy a fairly expensive piece of hardware (the first Kindle was around $400) on which to read them.

Now, that’s less true.

You can buy a

Fire, 7″ Display, Wi-Fi, 8 GB – Includes Special Offers, Black (at AmazonSmile: benefit a non-profit of your choice by shopping*)

for about $50, and you can get the

Kindle, 6″ Glare-Free Touchscreen Display, Wi-Fi – Includes Special Offers (at AmazonSmile: benefit a non-profit of your choice by shopping*)

EBR (E-Book Reader) for about $80.

You can (and many people do) read e-books on SmartPhones…and while those aren’t inexpensive, many people feel they are essential. Home refrigerator/freezers aren’t inexpensive…but once people had them, it created a market for convenience foods that weren’t individually expensive, and has very probably affected some markets like restaurants, milk delivery, and local grocery stores/farmers’ markets.

What may have happened is that the serious readers were more willing to lay out for the devices, and more willing to try e-books.

The advantage of individual e-books being cheaper than p-books (which has generally, although not universally, been the case) helps people who get more books more. Let’s just say you could save $4 per e-book. If you bought a hundred books, you saved the $400 for the first Kindle…and serious readers could easily do that in a year. A casual reader, who might buy, oh, let’s call it four books in a year, needs 25 years to break even.

The same thing goes for the advantage of storage. As I mentioned, I have quite a few p-books…we dedicate a room in the house to be a floor-to-ceiling library. Many casual readers keep very few books in the house, and never take more than one book out with them when, for instance, running errands. They just don’t get the same advantage.

Could it be that the roughly 25% of the measurable market of e-books sales might represent perhaps 90% of the purchases of serious readers?

Yes, I think that’s possible…and if true, would explain the plateau.

Does that mean e-book growth is done?

Nope.

I agree with people in the article who think that e-book growth will rebound.

For one thing, there are those SmartPhones, and increasingly, tablets. If reading a book is happening on the same screen where you do everything else, it becomes more likely for casual readers.

For another, casual readers may slowly start to convert to e-book sales.

One of the reasons casual readers buy books is to give them as gifts.

Currently, the perception is that a physical book is a better gift than an e-book.

Over time, that may change.

When people’s sense of what serious readers do is to read e-books, that may be what people give.

Here’s another reason:

Casual readers buy books because of their kids needing them for school, and for educational purposes.

When schools inevitably switch more strongly to e-books (inevitable because of cost, including loss and damage), kids’ parents won’t be knocking on a bookstore’s door just after closing for a book needed for a book report the next morning (I literally had that happen).

E-books are better for education…and they will keep getting better.

I know, that’s an unusually definitive statement for me.

I think, though, it’s hard to argue that having a built-in dictionary isn’t better for learning than needing a separate dictionary.

That doesn’t mean stand-alone dictionaries don’t have value…I read an unabridged one cover to cover when I was a kid. They have value, but especially for a disadvantaged child, they may not be readily available. E-books mean that everybody has a dictionary, and that they are used in context.

There are also the links to the web (including Wikipedia, but not limited to it), and features like “mentioned in this book”, which can facilitate additional reading (including from diverse viewpoints on the same topic).

So, I think that slowly, three of the main drivers for casual readers will convert to a much greater degree to e-books:

  • Gifts
  • Education
  • Sporadic personal reading (such as on vacation)

In the meantime, though, I think it’s reasonable to be concerned that e-books heighten the digital divide.

I’ve been a big proponent of e-books broadening reading access, and I do think that’s true. Someone of little means can read the great literature of the world for free. They may need to go to the library to have access to a computer, but for public domain books (those not under copyright protection), they will have very broad access. Many people have some sort of internet access available to them at home, or at school. We see this especially in “developing” countries, where e-books have been used to get literature to places where getting p-books would be impractical (see, for example, WorldReader.org).

In the next few years it may be true that serious readers with more means may have access to more traditionally published books than those without those resources…and that they will access to more research tools.

It’s not a big concern of mine, and it is an argument to try to speed up the adoption of e-books in those casual readers.

It is, though, interesting…

Summing up, I may have incorrectly predicted the e-book market based on me and readers like me, and missed the prediction for the broader market where adoption may have been much slower.

What do you think? Do e-books heighten or lessen the digital divide? Is there actually an e-book sales plateau, or is it just a case of measurability? If there is, is it because of serious readers having converted to a much greater degree than casual readers? Was there anything else in the American Libraries article which especially struck you? Feel free to tell me and my readers what you think by commenting on this post.

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* I am linking to the same thing at the regular Amazon site, and at AmazonSmile. When you shop at AmazonSmile, half a percent of your purchase price on eligible items goes to a non-profit you choose. It will feel just like shopping at Amazon: you’ll be using your same account. The one thing for you that is different is that you pick a non-profit the first time you go (which you can change whenever you want)…and the good feeling you’ll get. :) Shop ’til you help! :) 

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog. To support this or other blogs/organizations, buy  Amazon Gift Cards from a link on the site, then use those to buy your items. There will be no cost to you, and a benefit to them.

7 Responses to “Does the e-book sales plateau represent the digital divide?”

  1. Tom Semple Says:

    I think they are too focused on ‘revenue’. I can believe ebook share of revenue has ‘plateaued’ or ‘stabilized’, mostly due to higher ebook pricing by the major publishers, but I don’t see evidence that ‘digital’ people are ‘reverting’ in their reading habits, or reading less, and Amazon continues to report year over year growth in ebook sales. So yes, this is a measurability problem: digital-only publications are not included, including self-published ebooks and audiobooks.

    In particular, Audiobook growth is outpacing everything (smartphones are becoming ubiquitous), but the article doesn’t include that in the discussion. Yet it is definitely ‘digital reading’ and it represents a significant shift in reading habits generally.

    Another factor is demographic: I think older people are less likely to embrace digital reading, particularly when it is as convenient as ever to get a familiar print book in hand, order online, borrow from the library, etc., and the benefits of ebooks are not so obvious. Younger people, by contrast, are more interested in doing other things with their mobile devices and aren’t reading as much in any form. Music and video have gone digital much faster, as it is a much bigger part of a young person’s life (peer groups etc) and Walkman laid the groundwork for the iPod and now smartphones, and record and video stores no longer exist. Physical bookstores are more resilient, but they are less and less about selling books (the one in our little town carries maybe half of the books it did 5 years ago), and again, demographics are not on their side, and they will experience steady attrition. In 3-5 years I think we may finally get to 50% digital in units if not revenue, and transition could accelerate from there as more bookstores close.

    Publishers are not interested in driving technical innovation of digital reading, period, and don’t seem interested in experimenting with business models. But I don’t think that lack of such innovation is holding things back, it is mostly their risk-aversion.

    Ultimately I think everything digital will be pretty much 100% subscription based. There will be more losers than winners in that transition, but that’s where efficiency and convenience will take over.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Tom!

      I’m going to start with the demographics first.

      I think everything I’ve seen has indicated that Boomers are adopting e-books faster than Millenials. Some of the e-book benefits affect older people more (increasable font size, for example). However, the generation below the Millenials (I don’t think a name has really stuck yet) may be more purely digital.

      As to the subsers…I think that may end up being more of the core readers. If you don’t figure you spend $100 a year on books anyway, the attraction of subsers is much lower. I suppose it may become more standard to have one subser for a household, to cover schoolbooks (assigned reading) and such.

      As to the innovation, I found this quotation from the article interesting: “…those features represent new costs, but they have not yet demonstrated new profit.” Just taking the idea of added multimedia content, there have been a number of cases where an e-book was available in two forms, one with added content (for a few dollars more) and one without it. That means they probably do have some data. However, you are right…the big tradpubs largely don’t need to take risks, so we are more likely to see the risk taken by small companies.

      Thoughtful comment as always!

  2. Man in the Middle Says:

    My 8 year old grandson just switched from physical books to ebooks on Kindle as his mom passed down her Paperwhite to him. She’s discovered she’d just as happy to read her ebooks on her iPhone 6+. My wife made the same discovery, and just passed her Paperwhite on to our son, in exchange for his old Kindle Keyboard, which doesn’t have much battery life left, but still works great for using text to speech in the car. Both are happy with the trade.
    As for me, I haven’t bought a physical book in years, though I still receive some as a Vine reviewer. When I had cataracts last year, I really appreciated the ability to ramp up the font size in an ebook. All of us also really appreciate the ease of looking up the meaning of an unfamiliar word in an ebook.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Man!

      It’s possible that there may be a generation skip here, at least at first. The Baby Boomers adopt e-books because they are easier for them (for one thing). The post-Millenials may adopt them because they are digital natives. The Millenials do have an interesting attraction to physical media…although they also aren’t big on owning fun stuff.🙂

  3. Laura Says:

    Interesting article – thanks. My daughter is a Millenial computer scientist, and prefers to read paper books – she claims this is because she stares at a screen all day and wants a break. I am a Boomer who stares at a screen for much of the day, and that’s why I like e-ink. 🙂

    You’ve probably seen this, but there are a growing number of indie ebook sales that aren’t tracked by the usual sources because they don’t have ISBN numbers.

    http://authorearnings.com/report/september-2015-author-earnings-report/

    http://authorearnings.com/report/january-2015-author-earnings-report/

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Laura!

      I’ll look at those reports more carefully…I did write about the AAP report back in September, I think.

      I often mention the fact that many indie e-book sales are not tracked in the main surveys. Amazon doesn’t report sales numbers, and there are huge numbers of those. The vast majority of e-books in the Kindle store are indies…tradpubs (traditionally published) books are a tiny percentage of the number of titles (but a much bigger percentage of the sales, I would guess).

      I’ve also written about what I call “indieployment”. The number of people out of the traditional employment market is often presented as universally a tragedy, but I think a not insignificant number of them are earning money in non-traditional ways…including some who are self-published authors. I know some people don’t like that term, but in this case, I want to be narrower than just independently published.

      I don’t mind screens both at home and at work…and I do a mix of reflective (like e-ink) and backlit.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Laura!

      I’ll look at those reports more carefully…I did write about the AAP report back in September, I think.

      I often mention the fact that many indie e-book sales are not tracked in the main surveys. Amazon doesn’t report sales numbers, and there are huge numbers of those. The vast majority of e-books in the Kindle store are indies…tradpubs (traditionally published) books are a tiny percentage of the number of titles (but a much bigger percentage of the sales, I would guess).

      I’ve also written about what I call “indieployment”. The number of people out of the traditional employment market is often presented as universally a tragedy, but I think a not insignificant number of them are earning money in non-traditional ways…including some who are self-published authors. I know some people don’t like that term, but in this case, I want to be narrower than just independently published.

      I don’t mind screens both at home and at work…and I do a mix of reflective (like e-ink) and backlit.

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