Thursday, March 22, 2012

Are E-Book Sales Reaching a Plateau?

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.

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Book Lover said...

I love books. I like the feel of turning pages while sitting in a comfortable chair. Who doesn't? But I am also taking online classes at a local college. Wow! Take a look at some of the new online textbooks with embedded video and interactive demos. Think about renting the book for a semester versus using the book for four months and then trying to resell it at the bookstore. Sure, the current generation of tablets and e-readers have limitations, but so did the first cellphones. And, think about the current GLOBAL generation of youth who are comfortable with everything electronic and portable. There will always be room for books as long as we have comfy chairs and hot tea. But we can't think for a moment that electronic books have stalled or are just a fad that will go away. A don't forget the heavy deployment of iPads and such at senior centers where font size can be increased when one can't find his reading glasses.

BoSacks said...

“When in doubt, predict that the present trend will continue.”

Not so hasty my friend. This is the second inning of a long ball game. By the analysis here there was a flurry of runs in the first inning and the batters and pitchers in the second have gotten to know each other. Home runs are still in the running and 100,000 iPads in 2012 alone changes any forecast you may or may not have. Nope, I don’t but the incremental forever data at all. Perhaps a few slow batters, but it is going to be a very exciting game. Digital will win and it won’t need extra innings.


Schmo . . . said...

Book lover and bosacks are spot on. Noone can proclaim to know how this will work out, but I have a feeling that e-books will continue to grow in popularity. Think of the benefit from the publishing perspective. No printing, no shipping, no storage. E-books will forever transform the industry.

Grant said...


I think you missed the number of iPads by an order of magnitude (or 2). Apple sold over 3 million "The New iPad"s in 4 days. Add that to the huge number of iPad 2s they were selling before, and I would guess at least 10 million iPads in 2012.

I say this as someone who loves to read "real books" but also loves the ease of bringing an entire library with me on either my iPad of Kindle (depending on how long I will be away from Power).

Franz said...

Here is my take.. I love both, printed books & e-books (mainly in pdf format for now). This now decades old debate might be overlooking the other rapidly rising villain to books in any format. All of our kids & grand kids have tablets and what do they spend most of their time on? Games & other apps and browsing websites. With so much information out in cyberspace, there is less need to read any kind of book. My prediction.. more & more great paper books will be sold in Dollar Stores, e-books will continue to rise & both media will eventually be outpaced by the use of apps & general web browsing. And in schools.. textbooks are going digital.

Lucas said...

Great post! A little late to the game but wanted to comment anyways...

The ebook trend will continue to grow like the trends in how music is marketed and consumed. I am willing to argue that video games are not far behind.

As long as we have innovators, digital consumption will continue to grow, and I see no shortfall of serious innovators out there.

Frank Andrews said...

I’d have to check with you here. Which is not something I usually do! I enjoy reading a post that will make people think. Also, thanks for allowing me to comment!

Matthew said...

But the basic principles that govern our attitudes toward intellectual property are solid. Going forward, we should not alter our principles to fit changes in technology, but should instead develop innovative ways of using technology to honor our long-standing principles. Libraries and publishers should be able to find a new way to respect the old principle that expressions of ideas, once purchased, can be sold or lent for the benefit of everyone, even when those ideas are recorded in computer code rather than on paper.

Digital Book Printing