Saturday, July 07, 2012

Who's winning and losing due to the shift to eBooks?

In my last post, I wrote that eBooks aren't expanding the market for books in general. However, even if eBooks are, overall, simply shifting money from one bucket to another, there are definite winners and losers:

  • Amazon: The company sells the most popular eReaders and more eBooks than anyone else in the U.S. (although a lot of those sales are unprofitable.) Amazon's dominance in the eBook market scared five of the six biggest publishers into (according to the U.S. Justice Department and more than 30 states) illegal price-fixing in order to take away Amazon's price advantage.
  • Barnes & Noble: In the U.S., the bookseller is Amazon's only serious competitor for both eBooks and eReaders. Barnes and Noble has between 25% and 30% of the U.S. eBook market.
  • Kobo: The company is Amazon's primary eBook and eReader competitor outside the U.S. It's recovered from the failure of Borders and Borders' licensees (at least, outside the U.S.) Now that it's owned by Rakuten, it has both the financial resources it needs and a natural advantage in Asia.
  • Major publishers: Even though eBooks are shifting money around rather than increasing overall sales, publishers are earning more money on each sale, because eBooks have no printing, binding, shipping, warehousing or return processing costs.
  • Self-publishers: eBooks have opened up the market to both writers who couldn't find publishers or agents, and writers who've been previously published but didn't earn much money. Royalty rates on self-published eBooks are much higher than those from major publishers, so writers can sell fewer copies at lower prices and still make more money.
  • Consumers: Even though the Big 6 publishers have raised the prices of their eBooks under agency pricing, in most cases their eBooks are still less expensive than print. Self-published eBooks are dramatically less expensive than equivalent print titles. In addition, eReaders and tablets are far more convenient for consumers than carrying around multiple print books.
  • Independent booksellers: Few independent booksellers have successful online eBook businesses, and none of them have the same ease of ordering and delivery that Amazon and Barnes & Noble have. The American Booksellers Association inadvertently tied itself to the "albatross" of eRetailers, Google. which has since given notice that it plans to cancel its distribution agreements with independent booksellers. Whether independents will ever have a significant share of the U.S. eBook business depends almost entirely on who the ABA decides to partner with next.
  • Small publishers: Small publishers that are still focused on print are tied very directly to the fate of retail booksellers. They need shelf space in order to build awareness and sales of their books.
Too early to tell:
  • Apple: With no more than 10% of the U.S. eBook market and even less internationally, Apple's jump into the eBook business has largely been a bust, plus it's become entangled in Federal, state and private price-fixing lawsuits. Competitors such as Kobo are gaining share more quickly in international markets. Apple may ultimately decide that eBooks are more of a problem than they're worth, and settle for taking 30% of sales from other booksellers.
  • Sony: At one time, Sony was the undisputed leader in the eReader market, but a series of missteps have left it an also-ran, even in its original strongholds of Japan and the U.S. Sony can turn things around by aggressively pursuing partnerships with booksellers outside the U.S. and Canada.
None of these judgments are set in stone: Barnes & Noble's partnership with Microsoft could help it build an international business, or its slowly-sinking retail bookstores could bring down the entire enterprise. Major publishers could fail to transition to digital-first strategies and end up with costs that are much too high for their revenues. Independent booksellers could find the right partner and become a viable competitor for eBook and eReader sales. Small publishers could start producing far more eBooks and become more visible in online eBookstores. Apple's rumored new "iPad mini" could be the perfect tablet for reading eBooks and could drive sales of many more titles.

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