A fascinating couple of articles over the last few days around what is happening with ebook sales (from the US). A couple of articles from the Stratechery site (via @lorcanD and @aarontay) Disconfirming ebooks and Are ebooks declining, or just the publishers. Firstly referring to an article in the NY Times reporting on ebook sales plateau’ing, but then a more detailed piece of work from Author Earnings analysing more data. The latter draws the conclusion that it was less a case of ebook sales plateauing but more a case that the market share from the big publishers was declining (and postulating that price increases might play a part). Overall the research seems to show growth in independent and self-publishing but what looks like fairly low levels of growth overall. The figures mostly seem to be about market share rather than hard and fast sales per se. But interesting nonetheless to see how market share is moving away from ‘traditional’ print publishers.
The Stratechery articles are particularly interesting around the way that ebooks fit with the disruptive model of new digital innovation challenging traditional industries, what is termed here ‘Aggregation theory‘ [As an aside it’s interesting from the Author Earnings article to note that many of the new ebooks from independent or self-publishers don’t have ISBNs. What does that imply for the longer term tracking of this type of material? Already I suspect that they are hard to acquire for libraries and just don’t get surfaced in the library acquisitions sphere. Does it mean that these titles are likely to become much more ephemeral?]
The conclusion in the second Stratechery article I find particularly interesting, that essentially ebooks aren’t revolutionising the publishing industry in terms of the form they take. They are simply a digital form of the printed item. Often they add little extra by being in digital form, maybe they are easier to acquire and store, but often in price terms they aren’t much cheaper than the printed version. Amazon Kindle does offer some extra features but I’ve never been sure how much they are taken up by readers. Unlike music you aren’t seeing books being disaggregated into component parts or chapters (although it’s a bit ironic considering that some of Charles Dickens’ early works, such as The Pickwick Papers, were published in installments, as part works). But I’d contend that the album in music isn’t quite the same as a novel for example. Music albums seem like convenient packaging/price? of a collection of music tracks (possibly with the exception of ‘concept’ albums?) for a physical format, whereas most readers wouldn’t want to buy their novels in parts. There’s probably more of a correlation between albums/tracks and journals/articles – in that tracks/articles lend themselves in a digital world to being the lowest level and a consumable package of material.
But I can’t help but wonder why audiobooks don’t seem to have disrupted the industry either. Audible are offering audiobooks in a similar way to Netflix but aren’t changing the book industry in the way the TV and movie industry are being changed. So that implies to me that there’s something beyond the current ‘book’ offering (or that the ‘book’ actually is a much more consumable, durable package of content than other media). Does a digital ‘book’ have to be something quite different that draws on the advantage of being digital – linking to or incoporating maps, images, videos or sound, or some other form of social interaction that could never be incorporated in a physical form? Or are disaggregated books essentially what a blog is (modularization as suggested on stratechery)? Is the hybrid digital book the game-changer? [there are already examples of extra material being published online to support novels – see Mark Watson’s Hotel Alpha stories building on his novel Hotel Alpha, for example.] You could liken online retailers as disrupting the book sales industry as a first step but we’re perhaps only in the early stages of seeing how Amazon will ultimately disrupt the publishing industry. Perhaps the data from Author Earnings report points to the signs of the changes in ebook publishers.