Some industry observers are saying that eBook sales growth has reached an inflection point, which means that sales growth has hit zero or gone negative. In reality, eBook sales growth is slowing but still positive, and will most likely remain positive for a while. In addition, both consultants and reporters have been overly quick to minimize the effect of the Justice Department's settlement with Hachette, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, and most recently, Penguin. (Random House will join the settlement if and when its merger with Penguin is completed.) The settlements are still being phased in, and unless price has little or no effect on demand, we should see the rate of eBook sales increase in 2013.
However, let's say that even with the price-fixing settlements in the U.S. and Europe, eBook sales increases level off or turn negative. Is that good news for the publishing business, or bad?
- Some observers believe that it's good news, because they think that those customers will buy print books instead of eBooks. However, there's no evidence that a slowdown in eBook sales will mean an increase in print sales. In fact, print sales continue to decline, even as eBook sales growth slows down. (Update, January 4, 2014: According to Nielsen BookScan, U.S. print book sales (in units) fell 9.3% for all of 2012. Print book sales fell just under 16% between 2010 and 2012. In the U.K., print book sales (in units) fell 3.4% in 2012.)
- eBooks are the only source of growth for the book publishing business. If eBooks stop growing, we'll see even more consolidation and shutdown of publishers, since cost control will be the primary way to improve publishers' bottom lines.
I don't believe that eBooks' sales growth is going to go to zero, but 20%-30% annual growth may well be the ceiling for the next couple of years. Let's be clear--eBooks (and, to a lesser extent, audiobooks) are the only parts of the book publishing and retailing business that are growing. Everything else is stagnant or declining. If eBooks become stagnant, that's bad news for everyone.