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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.

Kindle screenI’ve been wondering about ebooks and libraries for a while, in particular about where things are going in terms of library use of ebooks.  What caught my eye this week was a blog post on the Publishers’ Weekly blog here by Peter Brantley about Penguin pulling their ebooks out of the Overdrive system.   The bit that particularly caught my attention was this statement:

I am very sympathetic to the sobering prognosis that in the longer run there’s not much future for libraries in providing access to ebooks. If for no other reason, it is likely that ebooks will evolve into a great variety of objects, some of which are widely distributed on the net and not neatly packaged; many others will be enhanced into proprietary versions that will only work on a single platform.

The thing that particularly interested me in the quote was that there is the assumption that these are insurmountable ‘technical’ issues that would stop libraries from lending ebooks.  And I don’t know that any library would consider that to be the case.  I doubt that many people would suggest that the currrent format of ebooks is in any way a finished article, I’m sure that they will change and evolve over time.  But whatever the format, libraries will still see their role as trying to connect the user with the content.

The platform issue puzzles me slightly.  I think there are interesting parallels with the early days of video, where VHS won out over Betamax, and in more recent time when BluRay came through.  If you turn and look at computer games, then the different platforms still continue to co-exist, and many libraries lend selections of material in different formats.  I’m not sure that it is the platform that is the issue with ebooks.  Yes some of the formats and platforms may die, in the way that music cassettes largely disappeared as CD took over.  But the issue seems to me more to do with the publishers and platform providers positioning themselves for competitive advantage and not wanting to open their content up to a readership through libraries.

If you set aside the format issue for a moment and you look at the model that academic libraries have been able to take with providing access to ebooks.  Then we see them providing access to ebooks from different publisher collections with direct links to the ebooks on publishers websites, sometimes with ebook metadata added into the library catalogue or knowledge base to provide direct access.  Now I know that public libraries largely don’t have the infrastructure to provide remote access to collections of electronic material in this way so they have tended to go with a single aggregator.  But it seems to me that building and mantaining an infrastructure to let public libraries continue to provide access to ebooks, either as a collaborative shared service or as a commercial service (such as Overdrive) isn’t a particular issue.

Where format is an issue, is in terms of how the end-user uses the content.  While the ebook publication model is currently based mostly, it seems to me, on trying to lock users into a proprietary platform, it seems to me that we will see changes to that model over time.  Maybe the number of platforms will shrink, maybe the formats will start to move towards a standard, or one platform/format become dominant.  So if ebook publishers or aggregators want to make their material available through libraries, then there isn’t insurmountable ‘technical’ issues to stop that happening.

Which seems to leave the argument being about whether publishers and aggregators want their ebook content available through libraries.  And it seems to me that  the reasons why publishers might want their content to be lent through libraries are exactly the same reasons why printed books are lent through libraries, it encourages reading, it encourages literacy and surveys suggest that library readers are also heavy purchasers of books.  So if you want to get people into the habit of reading, using and buying ebooks, especially when you are building a new market, wouldn’t you want to use all means to encourage people to try out ebooks?

Kindle screen I got to the end of one of my Kindle books the other day and it suddenly dawned on me that I’d read some of the book on an ipad, some on a PC, some on a phone and the rest on the Kindle device itself.  I had entirely taken it for granted that I could pick up from the page that I’d last read up to on another device.   I find it interesting that something like that, which would have been pretty much unthinkable a few years ago, now is commonplace.

I’m finding the range of Kindle reading applications to be really useful.  I’ve got them on a couple of PCs, an ipad and a phone so it makes it pretty easy to pick up something I’m reading as there’s rarely a time when I don’t have some form of electronic device with me.

It’s good that Amazon’s marketing people worked out that making it easy for people to access their content on as many devices as possible was the way to go.   It’s great that there aren’t limitations on which devices you can be reading it on.

Not that there aren’t a few tweaks to some of the Apps and tools that it would be good to see.  I’ve got my content on the Kindle arranged in themed folders so it would be good to pick that up some way on the other reading apps.  Also I know that as my ebook library grows I’m going to want better tools to search that ‘elibrary’.  So it would be good to be able to tag books and search for them (hmmm sounds suspiciously like cataloguing!).

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April 2020

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