Monday, June 25, 2012

Why Are E-Books Such A Big Deal? Part 2


Well, I knew I'd come back to this topic, and so I have. What prompts my return is the announcement that for the first time eBook sales revenues in the US have topped hardcover revenues. Ebooks surpassed hardcovers in units sold some time ago, but unit prices are much lower. Now gross revenues have surpassed them as well, according to a new report from the Association of American Publishers (AAP) and reported in TechCrunch.com (link to article here).

The study looks at revenue-to-date in calender 2012, in which time ebooks generated $282.3 million in sales and hard-covers generated $229.8 million. The article then goes on to look at comparative sales data from the same period last year and claims (incorrectly), "Almost exactly a year ago the tables were turned with ebooks hitting $220 million and hardcovers brushing $335 million." They included the statistical table from the AAP report which shows that the authors of the TechCrunch article had a hard time reading the table correctly, since the $335 million sales number was in fact for adult paperbacks, not adult hardcovers. Adult hardcover numbers were actually only 223.5 million last year, which means ebook sales passed hardcover, but not going in opposite directions; both grew, but ebooks grew more.

The big losers were adult paperback (down from $335 million to $299.8 million) and adult mass market paperback (down from $124.8 million to $98.9 million) which sort of confirms my earlier suspicion that ebooks were supplanting paperbacks more than hardcovers due to their lower price point and greater portability.

At about the same time Bowkers released a ten-country study (link to study here) on percentage of the population which had purchased and downloaded an ebook. Since only ten countries were studied, this is obviously not exhaustive, but it's still interesting. Here are the rankings for those ten countries:

India                     24%
Australia              21%
United Kingdom  21%
United States       20%
Brazil                   18%
South Korea         14%
Germany              13%
Spain                    13%
Japan                      8%
France                    5%

A couple observations on these numbers.

The India and Brazil numbers are striking. The parts of the third world which are in the process of breaking into the first world -- and India and Brazil are in the forfront of the --, have enjoyed explosive growth in digital connectivity in part because of infrastructure issues. Cell phones have become the communication device of choice because cell phone service requires modest infrastructure increases compared with laying land lines everywhere, so lots of folks have cell phones instead of land lines. Digital literacy has followedat a pretty healthy clip and that's pointed to as a partial explanation of the enthusiastic embrace of ebooks in those countries.

France's low adoption rate is striking but may have something to do with its traditional love affair with the printed word. A more tangible reason has to do with France and Germany both having regulations in effect which protect small bookstores and so encourage consumers to frequent them.
Here's a link to Paris-based blogger Frederic Filloux, who discusses this. The impact of the ebook revolution on bookstores in our country has been profound (although it's certainly not the only thing which put a squeeze on them). In the 1950s, New York City boasted over 330 bookstores. Now it is down to 30 (according to Andre Schiffrin, former head of Pantheon Books).

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