When the U.S. magazine industry gets hot and bothered about the latest craze, you can usually bet that trend is about to run out of steam.
E-books were the talk of many magazine people at this week’s Publishing Business Conference in New York, my spies tell me. The web – which is so hopelessly last year – was hardly mentioned. Everyone wanted to chat about their e-books and tablet editions, more so about their cool factor than about whether they were earning much profit.
Meanwhile, the book-publishing half of the huge conference was getting some rather startling news: The once-exploding sales growth of e-books in the U.S. has slowed dramatically, according to research from RR Bowker. (My correspondent’s account is corroborated by Paul Biba of TeleRead.) This just proves Stein's Law of Economics: An unsustainable trend cannot be sustained.
“We went from exponential to incremental growth,” said Kelly Gallagher, a Bowker vice president, who also referred to "some level of saturation" in the U.S. market. The breathless predictions of two years ago, which suggested that the growth of e-books would soon shut down all the book printing presses and brick-and-mortar bookstores, turned out to be way off the mark.
E-book sales will probably continue to grow incrementally, Gallagher said, but no one has the market figured out. “Anyone who tells you they have figured it out is probably trying to get some consulting money out of you.”
Despite the massive purchases of tablets and e-readers during the 2011 holiday season, the proportion of book buyers who bought an e-book rose from 17% late last year to only 20% in January, according to Bowker’s research.
Recent buyers of e-reading devices are not purchasing as many e-books as the early adopters do, Gallagher said. Many of those who have switched over to full-color tablets may be caught up in “Angry Birds Syndrome”and not doing much book reading on their new gizmos.
E-book buyers going retro
And here’s the real shocker: The power purchasers of e-books (60% of the U.S. volume comes from people who buy at least four titles per month) are buying more ink-on-paper books than previously
All reports indicate that the conference had very few of the print-vs.-digital discussions of previous years. Most publishers seemed to accept that they would be making money from print for a long time to come, that digital editions had real promise, and that they needed to figure out how they could make actual money from the web.
The only “print is dead” sort of talk came in regards to textbooks, which some said would be rapidly replaced by e-books and educational software. But the children’s non-textbook book market is a different story, with e-books having less than 5% market penetration and not showing much promise in the tablet world.
“The App Store is a nightmare for finding children’s book apps,” one publisher complained. What we have here is a rare piece of good news for the future of print-media industries: Today’s children will be trained to associate e-editions with work and printed editions with fun reading.