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'E-book sales are astonishing'

15 November 2010

So, given publishers' latest focus, are readers are switching to e-books at a staggering speed and is the whole market for books set to change radically within a short space of time? The evidence for this is actually a bit contradictory.

A new study, Publishing in the Digital Era, commissioned by the Forum d'Avignon and compiled by Bain & Co. states that e-readers, tablets other digital reading devices 'could be in the hands of 15 to 20% of the developed world's population by 2015'. It goes on to say that the 'redistribution of value among players, a redesign of their roles and, potentially and an evolution in the way content is created could produced significant new value for the industry'. Bain suggests that digital formats are likely to represent '20 to 28% of industry profits in the medium to long term'.

The study surveyed some 3,000 consumers across the United States, Japan, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, and South Korea. The United States and South Korea lead in e-reader penetration, with South Korea expected to hit 11% and the United States 8% by 2012, respectively.

Men have outnumbered women as early adopters. Buyers of e-readers tend to have higher than average incomes, are aged between 20 and the early 30s. Many are already avid readers, and more than 40% (52% in the United States) report reading more now than they did prior to owning a device.

But the report suggests that people are unwilling to abandon 'the paper experience'. Bain predicts that e-readers 'could capture as much as a third of the market' for their ability to replicate the experience of reading on paper.

Meanwhile the emergence of powerful distribution platforms, such as Apple and Amazon, has allowed them to contribute to the emergence of global book publishing markets, with implications which no-one can yet foresee.

E-books are already having a significant impact on the American market. John Grisham's new bestseller, The Confession, is the first of his adult hardcover novels to be made available simultaneously as an e-book. The result is that e-book sales were about one-third of week-one hardcover sales, or around 70,000. Sales of the hardcover edition were 160,000 in the first week, although it may be significant that his last book sold 223,000 hardcover copies in its first week, according to BookScan.

'The e-book sales are astonishing', John Grisham said in an interview. 'Would anybody have thought that a year ago? The future has arrived, and we're looking at it... Hopefully there is a whole new market out there of readers buying books digitally. If that's true, it's good news for all of us. I'm cautiously optimistic that it may increase the number of readers, but it's too early to tell.'

The Hachette Book Group have just announced that digital books accounted for 9% of revenue in the US for the first nine months of the year. Digital book sales were so negligible last year that Lagardere didn't even break them out in its financial report for the first nine months of 2009, so they have grown extremely quickly.

But on the other hand, as Jeffrey A Trachtenberg has pointed out, less than 3 percent of the population of the US population actually owns an iPad, although Kindle figures may be much higher. A recent Condé Nast study showed that iPad and iPhone users were not the technical sophisticates that had been expected and readers seem to spend more time with the digital replicas in comparison to the print versions. The other big point was that people generally used iPads at home and not, surprisingly, as mobile devices.

Then there's the view best expressed by a 'senior figure at a large technology firm who works closely with trade publishers, and who has been heavily involved with e-books and other forms of electronic content delivery since the late 1990s', talking to Scott LcLemee in Inside Higher Education:

'Sure you can carry 80 books around on this $400 reader, but the number of people who require 80 books to be carried around at one time is very small... This is not the music business - these aren't two- or three-minute songs. It's not the newspaper business - [books] don't have a shelf-life of a day or an hour.'

So we shall see what happens next.

Article in Inside Higher Education