Friday, July 06, 2012

Print vs. eBooks: Deck chairs on the Titanic?

Earlier today, I wrote about a panel on eBook collection development at this year's American Library Association annual conference. You can read the post, or the original article, for more information, but I found a couple of points very interesting (or scary, depending on your perspective):
  • The King County Library System has increased its eBook budget by 60% in each of the last three years, but the library's overall budget has been flat. To get the money for more eBooks, the library has cut its reference subscription database budget in half.
  • The Free Library of Philadelphia is trying to expand its eBook collection, even while the library's budget for materials was recently cut by 50%.
Libraries throughout the U.S. are lucky if their budgets have been flat; most have had big cuts to their budgets, even while demand for eBooks grows. To fulfill that demand, libraries are cannibalizing their budgets for print books and online content. Heavy book buyers are purchasing more eBooks, because they're less expensive than print, but moderate book buyers appear to simply be substituting eBooks for print equally, and light book buyers are only just starting to buy eBooks. It's highly doubtful that they'll do anything more than substitute eBooks for print.

So, where does that leave publishers? Book sales in general have been declining for years, and print sales are declining faster than eBook sales are growing. Luckily, the problem isn't as serious as the decline in home video sales for movie studios, or the decline in music sales at record companies. In addition, publishers are capturing most of the revenue shift from print to eBooks, while home video revenues are shifting to companies like Netflix and Redbox, and record companies are still fighting a high rate of piracy. However, that's putting the best possible spin on a very bad situation.

eBooks aren't going to save the book publishing industry. In fact, the only thing that can is a reversal in the industry's long-term secular decline trend, and there's precious little effort being put into that.

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