Sunday, January 11, 2015

Ebook Sales Peak and Decline — Now What?

According to two recent measures, ebook unit sales declined over the course of 2014 while hardcover units increased slightly. This shouldn’t be taken as a trend in itself, but it shows that the ebook format has run out of steam after three years of stagnation in the technology.

The ebook medium has obvious advantages but equally obvious disadvantages. Holiday gift-giving looms large in the latest statistics, and if ebooks are rarely given as gifts it is for good reason. With most ebook platforms there is no provision for any meaningful physical custody of a book you buy. Gift-givers rightly worry that an ebook is not something you can hand to the recipient of a gift, but it goes beyond that. For the purchaser or nominal owner of an ebook, it is hard to feel like you really own the books in your ebook collection. Most of them, if you have more than a dozen, are in cloud storage, so that you have no idea of their physical location. Thèy are subject to terms of use, pages of legalese that no one can claim to fully understand, though it is hard to escape the suspicion that a future business failure or even a failed software update in the cloud, wherever it is, could wipe away your whole collection.

As gifts, ebooks are far too easily overlooked or forgotten. For purchasers, with so little sense of ownership it is hard to feel pride in ownership. Last year I predicted that avid ebook customers would stop buying books in advance. Maybe that has started to happen. How many unread ebooks can you “own” before you start to feel conflicted about buying more that you also don’t have time to read? Answers will vary, of course, but once you pass that threshold, your purchases will tend to fall off to match your reading pace.

Purchases could fall off faster than that. In theory, two readers could avoid all new purchases for a time just by borrowing each other’s collections. Early adopters of ebooks can now re-read ebooks they originally bought five years ago. Regardless of publishers’ efforts to inhibit the reuse of ebooks, the ephemeral nature of the medium makes ebooks inherently more reusable than a physical book could ever be, though at the same time, technology is also making printed books more reusable than they were in the past. All this means that the ratio of sales to reading has to decline over time as customers adapt.

The stagnation that has characterized ebooks in recent years obviously has to give way eventually, and I think ebooks could gain broader acceptance as the technology advances, but there are limits to this optimistic scenario. If all current new book sales switched over to the ebook medium, ebook reading could increase by a factor of 5, but for the reasons I have mentioned, ebook revenue would go up by only a factor of 2. Would that support the book industry in its current form? Obviously not. Indeed, one doubts the survival of some of the key ebook platforms in this scenario. They could be killed off by their own success.

In the meantime the encouraging note is that the stark contrast between ebook and printed book is encouraging readers to take books more seriously. If you are going to take the time to read and think about a book, shouldn’t it be a carefully selected book, and a hardcover at that? This new thinking is not entirely good news for publishers — serious customers might be willing to pay more, but they are the ones who expect more of a product and buy more cautiously. The flood of low-quality books that has characterized the book business for the last quarter century will surely not stand up to the new scrutiny. History assures us, though, that the book industry can survive and thrive on a smaller scale than it currently enjoys.