Posted on September 16, 2013 in Archive

E-book sales are plateauing… Or are they?


In an industry where e-book sales have rocketed in the past five years, recent statistics have shown that growth is stagnating. At least, that’s what it looks like.

Sam Missingham recently wrote an article giving us some insight into the arc of digital book sales, which provided several interesting points (which I’ll get to in just a moment).

Also, according to this article by USA Today, ebook sales are up by 43%, but that is still considered an “ebook slowdown”. Uh, pardon?

We don’t have the full picture, though. This data set comes from the AAP BookStats study, which was collated from nearly 2,000 traditional publishers.

Keyword: traditional. Self-published authors, non-traditional publishers or traditional publishers outside of the companies selected for the study are nowhere to be found in this data. The result, if correctly combined, could be quite different. For example, Amazon, the largest sales channel for self-published authors, quotes that between 30 – 40% of digital book sales are from these independent or self-publishers.

These figures sadly don’t make it into the ‘457 million units sold in 2012’ figure that the AAP study released.

The idea of reading a book on a tablet is still a relatively new idea, in terms of technological advances of the last century. Can a ‘plateau’ really be reached in as little a period as five years, especially when growth is still occurring?

The reason that ultimately big publishers are able to claim that sales are plateauing, is that they are selling more hardback books than they are selling digital. Once again, apples are being compared with oranges.

Obviously the traditional model of paper books has worked for them, for a long time now. If it ain’t broke…?

Print books appeal to an older demographic. That’s a fact recognised through studying trends. I’m not being ageist, I promise. There is no denying that buying a print book and buying a digital book (for the time being) are vastly different experiences. Both, one or the other might not appeal to everyone.

But what if digital publications weren’t just “print under glass”? What if they provided a different experience to print?

Right now, an e-book is literally a digital rendering of a print book. It’s profitable, but it’s simple. Publishers are potentially severely limiting themselves in doing so; they could be providing a much fuller experience! Books are merely paper. Tablets are so much more.

Joe Wikert in “The myth of plateauing e-book sales” writes that the digital publishing industry should be pushing a product that cannot simply be converted back into print (or at least, is a shadow of its digital counterpart).

Pottermore, while not yet available on tablets, is an interesting model for this argument. Sony has transformed J.K. Rowling’s books into an interactive online experience where users can explore the illustrated world of Harry Potter and Hogwarts, and can even discover previously unpublished scenes from the series.

Liquid State - E-book sales - Pottermore by J.K Rowling

Authors like this Potty one are starting to realise that there’s more to be had from their works than printed words on a page.

Right now, Pottermore users are encouraged to read along with the print books as they progress through the online levels. In the future, why couldn’t they be reading along and clicking into Pottermore from their tablets?

Admittedly, this development isn’t exactly up to date with the publishing schedule of the Harry Potter series (The final book was released in 2007, while Pottermore debuted in July 2011). But it’s still a fascinating instance of an author working to push their works beyond words on a page.

Scaling content is a fantastic idea that could be the next logical step in digital publishing. It could give digital content the creative edge it needs to become more than a lightweight alternative to a bag full of books.

The only problem is figuring out the best way to do that – not everyone has the resources and power that the combined resources of Sony and J.K. Rowling hold.

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