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Book Trade; eBook debate – a view from Singapore

April 6, 2011 2 comments

Next week the global book trade will gather in London for the annual London Book Fair. Once again, the ongoing eBook debate will dominate both the trade agenda and the fair programme.

The burning question continues to be, amongst all the hype and speculation, what will happen to physical book sales in the light of the widely predicted digital onslaught? Opinions range wildly from ‘Do nothing; we’ve seen this kind of thing before’ to ‘Get out quickly whilst you are still able to salvage something of value’. Is this truly a ‘Caxton’ moment or will life carry on much as it has before?

 As I write this, I’m in Singapore, probably one of the most wired societies on the planet. The answer to the question here seems to be that there is no discernable impact yet on sales, which to my mind is mildly surprising. Even the mighty Amazon has only a limited Asian presence (although there is an Amazon Japanese site). Singaporeans, if they use Amazon, log on via the UK or American sites.

I met with a significant general market distributor and they reported seeing no real impact on their business. Even Borders troubles here are put down to poor chain management rather than sales being siphoned away through digital stealth. I therefore conclude that, as in the rest of the world, no-one really knows quite what is going on although it seems clear to most in the wider trade that something pretty significant is beginning to stir in the undergrowth!

What is abundantly clear, however, is that all sections of the trade have their own particular fears and are watching the developing situation incredibly closely, leading to some sharply divergent views; 

  • Retailers – seeing their business disappearing online and wonder where it’s all going to end
  • Publishers – scrambling to find a viable rights and pricing model as authors potentially disappear from view hand-in-hand with online retailers
  • Distributors – wondering if they will be cut out of the action all together
  • Authors – either upset by inferior internet royalties or sensing new opportunities to cut out the publisher and self-publish via the big internet players such as Amazon

Back in February, the International Publishers Association (IPA) asked its various members for their views on their own embryonic eBook markets. These findings, widely reported at the time in the trade press, are worth summarising;

  •  The proliferation of smart phones and tablet computers (such as the iPad) is radically fuelling the eBook market as millions of these devices cry out for content
  • Amazon.com’s eBook sales were recently reported as surpassing their print unit sales
  • Most reference and academic journal publishing has already largely migrated online
  • USA newspapers have started to incorporate eBook sales into their regular bestseller lists
  • The UK e-market is around 18 months behind the USA – but the gap is fast shrinking
  • Amazon, Apple and Google exhibit every sign of becoming ePublishing competitors!
  • The existing copyright and territorial rights are not always relevant to the digital environment
  • The new model significantly challenges territorial marketing as eBooks are effectively global in reach
  • The proliferation and ease of digital piracy and file sharing is a major worry particularly in certain emerging markets
  • Price remains contentious as consumers expect digital texts to cost less than the printed work
  • Savings in print and distribution are largely offset by technology costs, new services and VAT
  • Surprise, surprise! French publishers are lobbying to extend fixed retail print prices to all eBooks sold in France!

The overall conclusion to all this seems to be that, yes, this market is changing faster than we realise but, in the words of IPA, ‘the day eBooks will outsell print is not imminent’.

No doubt the debate – and the opinions – will continue for a while yet.

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Book Trade; eBook Sales and Digital Reader update

January 23, 2011 3 comments

From January 24 – 26, the Publishing Industry will gather in New York for the Digital Book World Conference to debate the new technologies. I really wish I was going but, like me, you can follow it on Twitter during the coming week. As Christians in this industry, we simply cannot ignore such immense changes to our market. If you are part of Linked In, you could also join the group, Digital Book World.

Like it or not, the eBook revolution is here. There’s also a lot of puff around with some drawing parallels such as the shift from the horse to the automobile! Somehow I doubt it. Print is still pretty massive! However, a number of commentators, admittedly mostly American, are stating that this Christmas was absolutely a ‘change point’ in terms of the sale of eBooks. Barnes & Noble, the largest USA bookshop chain, announced it sold one million e-books on Christmas Day. The fact that they developed their own ‘Nook’ eReader has been credited with keeping them ahead of faltering rivals, Borders USA.  

USA Today’s ‘Best-Selling Books’ list demonstrated digital’s new popularity; their top six books outsold the print versions in the week following the Christmas holiday. Of the top 50, 19 had higher e-book than print sales. Perhaps not a great surprise when around 3 to 5 million eReaders were activated in that same week resulting in this surge of sales. The big question; is will it continue? It’s obviously still early days but insiders are predicting that by 2012 three in every 10 books could be delivered digitally. Publishers are aiding this trend by very quickly adding more and more back-list titles.

According to AAP sales figures in the USA, eBook sales were significantly up in November. At the same time, adult paperback sales were down 19% compared to the same period the previous year. Their release states, ‘eBook sales continue to grow, with a 130% increase over November 2009 ($46.6 million); year-to-date eBook sales are up 166%’. It will be interesting to see the December eBook figures when they are released as what starts in the USA tends to end up here.

Gartner predicted that more than 15.8 million e-readers will be in use by 2013.  Some in the industry have expressed surprise at the speed of this transition, which has quickly gained ground particularly in the area of mass market fiction. eBooks sales account for about 9% of the USA market. Bowker, the research company says sales may flatten this year but could still be twice as high as they were in 2010.

Within Publishing, there’s a lot of uncertainty about what to do about piracy and DRM (digital rights management). Should DRM be employed at all as it can so easily by cracked? Is piracy really such a threat to book publishers in the same way as it was for the music industry? The answers may be different depending on whether you are a small niche publisher or one producing high volume, high worth, popular titles. These days it’s just so easy to scan and digitise a printed book and put them up on a web site. For a really informative thread; discussion here.

Google’s announcement earlier this week of its acquisition of eBook Technologies, a company that sells the technology used to operate digital reading devices is fascinating. Google by dint of its size, power, wealth and global reach has the ability to utterly transform the eBook landscape. Already consumers can browse and search through more than 3 million free books on its site.

Publishers are on the defensive. As eBook sales rise, the unspoken question is; will authors still need a publisher? It’s just possible than in the fast-approaching digital future that it will be the (online) retailers who will come to dominate the customer relationship. Why? Because it is the retailer who has the knowledge of their consumer base. They have the ability to market a book far more effectively. Why has Tesco been such a successful retailer? In one word; Clubcard! Consumer data and customer knowledge are all.

The future of eBook selling may therefore lie with the likes of Amazon, Apple and Eden. However, as of today, there are no Christian eBooks for sale on Eden.co.uk. As I write, one site launching to sell Christian eBooks is www.10ofthese.com – so I guess we shall see!

But a way does need to be found quickly for small retailers to gain access to this market. Andrew Lacey from GLO has suggested something along the lines of the now defunct Crown customisable website?

What all this tells us is that retail as we know it will need to be reinvented if it is to survive. My view is that we have a few short months to act and make changes before the impact fully begins to bite.

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