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The myth of plateauing ebook sales

My brilliant friend and industry colleague, Sam Missingham, was kind enough to ask me to preview this article she just published. She did a nice job piecing bits of information together to help us all understand the current and future trajectory of ebook sales.

Sam also provided some nice context on the myth that ebook sales growth is slowing and equilibrium has been reached. This attitude is only reinforced by all the big publishers who want this to be true, if only to save their jobs and their companies.

The reality is, yes, growth rates have slowed, at least based on the limited data we have access to. But that data misses so many different pockets, some of which Sam noted in her article (e.g., Smashwords). Second, like it or not, print books mostly appeal to an older demographic. In my role as publisher over the past several years I used to say that our customers are getting older and dying. That's true for technology books which has been my forte, but I think it's also true of other genres as well.

Note that I'm not saying the only people buying print are from an older generation; I'm just saying that I believe there's a significant difference in print vs. e buying habits when you compare those over 40 to those under 40, for example. So as the population ages (and dies) we'll see a continued shift towards digital. Print doesn't go away. It will outlive me, my kids, their kids, etc. But the move from print to digital will continue.

Next, I also believe there will be a significant shift that accompanies the next tablet price threshold. This is where eInk devices were heading but it's clear tablets are the key now. You can buy a lousy, no-name tablet for less than $100 but very few people are doing so. What happens when Amazon, Samsung, or someone else breaks through that threshold and offers a sub-$100 tablet? All those new customers won't be book buyers but many of them will be. And if the low tablet price is somehow subsidized by a content provider (e.g., "commit to Amazon Prime for 2 years and you'll get this Kindle Fire for $99") I think we'll see a pretty significant bump. This is something B&N should have done long ago, btw.

Finally, we're still living in a "print under glass" world, where the vast majority of ebooks are simple renderings of print in e-format. Yawn. Yes, it's simple and convenient, it allows us all to lug around many more books than we'd be able to physically carry, but I think this has led to stagnation. Publishers earn revenue from these products and they're extremely low risk to create. Publishers are also scared of the investments required for rich content so they're all just sitting back, living off these quick-and-dirty conversions.

As I've said before though, we're in the early stages, just like TV was initially where all shows were nothing more than radio programs in front of a camera. How much would it have slowed TV adoption if that model never evolved? IOW, if the production value for TV shows remained as low-budget as radio, well, who knows how long it would have taken for that platform to fully emerge.

Our industry needs to figure out how to create scalable content that takes advantage of the medium it's being delivered on. Think digital-first content that simply couldn't be reproduced in print, or if it is, the print product will be so stripped-down that it feels like an old-time radio program compared to a modern TV show. Notice that I also used the word "scalable" earlier. That's a key too. I've seen way too many glitzy products (The Elements iPad app is the classic example) that wow the audience but are definitely not scalable.

So yes, ebook sales rates are slowing. Most publishers might be stuck at their current levels for awhile. But the digital conversion is far from over, so don't let the short-term leveling off lead you to believe there won't be more disruption and shifts going forward.


Andy Traub

Wow. THAT was a well written piece. Well said my friend.

Brian D. Meeks (@ExtremelyAvg)

An excellent piece and right on the mark. I hadn't thought about it, but your point on the sub-100 price point is a good one. When this happens I'm sure there will be another leap forward in sales.

You mentioned not taking advantage of the medium and I'm sure that people will come up with ideas to enhance their books and make them more than just words on the page. This will be good for bringing in new readers. And it will give bloggers something to write about, too..."Death of the words only book" everyone will be happy. :-)

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