Does the e-book sales plateau represent the digital divide?
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.
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
for about $50, and you can get the
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?
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:
- 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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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.