Friday, January 13, 2012

eBooks: Reality sets in for publishers

Forrester Research and Digital Book World released some details yesterday of a survey of book publishers representing 74% of U.S. revenues. According to the survey conducted late last year, publishers are actually getting more pessimistic about the future as eBooks become more important. In a similar survey in 2010, 66% of respondents said that they expected that more people would read eBooks than before; in 2011, only 47% gave the same answer. When asked whether eBooks would cause people to read more books than before, 66% of respondents answered "yes" in 2010, while 60% answered "yes" in 2011.

29% of 2011's respondents believe that eBooks will comprise 50% of all book sales in 2014; 22% of the respondents believe that eBooks won't reach the 50% mark until 2015 or later. 82% of respondents are "optimistic" about the digital transition, but while 51% of respondents in 2010 believed that their companies would be stronger as a result of eBooks, only 28% believed so in 2011.

These are only a handful of responses from what is undoubtedly a much more detailed survey, but they suggest that publishers' mindsets are changing. In 2010, many publishers believed that eBooks were only another "binding"--another way to consume books--and that they didn't represent a fundamental change. Since then, however, you'd have to be living under a rock not to recognize that eBooks are changing just about everything about the book industry:

  • eBooks are continuing to cannibalize print sales. Last year, eBook sales more than doubled over 2010, but sales in every category of print books tracked by Nielsen Bookscan were lower in 2011, from a drop of 3% for hardcover adult nonfiction to a 24% decline for mass market paperbacks.
  • According to USA Today, for the week including Christmas 2011, 42 of the top 50 titles sold more eBook than print copies (this compares with 19 of the top 50 titles for the same week in 2010).
  • When customers walk into the biggest bookstore chain in the U.S., Barnes & Noble, the first thing they see is no longer a table stacked with new print arrivals. Instead, it's a display of Nook eBook readers and tablets, staffed full-time by a salesperson.
  • Self-publishing, which was once the domain of vanity presses and the last refuge for writers who couldn't get a contract with a publisher, is now a viable option for writers--even those who could get a conventional publishing deal. It's now possible for authors to sell a million copies of their self-published eBooks.
  • The tasks performed by publishers, including acquisition editing, copy editing, book cover design, book layout, typography, format conversion, distribution of eBook masters to resellers and printing, are now being done by contractors, service suppliers or the authors themselves.
  • Amazon, which represents both the biggest customer and the biggest frustration for many publishers, got into publishing in a big way in 2011 with five imprints. Amazon is willing to pay top dollar to sign authors such as Tim Ferriss and Penny Marshall, and to acquire backlist titles. 
Publishers are beginning to understand that things aren't going to go back to the way they were before the Great Recession, and that eBooks are much more than simply another way to consume books. They may not represent as shocking a transition as the effect of television on the movie industry during the 1950s and 60s, but eBooks' impact on the book industry will be dramatic, especially given that we're still early in the transition from print to digital. What will things look like on the other side of the transition? That's the subject of a future post.
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