Friday, February 15, 2013

Why have e-book sales slowed?

Nicholas Carr writes about technology and culture.  In 2011, he won the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction with his book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our BrainsI've always appreciated that Carr makes much of his insightful writing available through his blog Rough Type, and he has recently written some interesting articles dealing with e-books, "Will Gutenberg laugh last?" and "Used e-book, slightly foxed"

In that second article, Carr talks about the dizzying long-term tactical measures he thinks Amazon is taking to control the e-book market.  The article talks about Amazon setting up a system whereby the "rights" of used e-books can traded for a limited number of times (this might sound familiar to librarians who deal with the publishers of e-books!).  Earlier in the article however, he comments that there are "continuing signs that the e-book market is cooling" as the "rate of expansion" appears to be on a downward trajectory.  

In "Will Gutenberg laugh last?", he deals with this issue in more detail, noting that during the courses of 2012, "(a) the growth in e-book sales has slowed substantially and (b) print sales are holding up pretty well.".  Illustrating (a), he notes that, "annual growth in adult e-book sales dropped to 34 percent during the first half of 2012, a sharp falloff from the triple digit gains of the previous few years".  Illustrating (b) he points out data indicating "hardcover sales appear to be holding steady, increasing at about a 2 percent annual rate."

In short, the conventional narrative is being disrupted.  The growth rate of e-book sales is dropping much more abruptly than expected and print book sales, surprisingly, continue to rise. 

Carr shares more statistics in that first article, but what is perhaps most interesting are his proposed reasons for this:

1. We may be discovering that e-books are well suited to some types of books (like genre fiction)  but not well suited to other types (like nonfiction and literary fiction) and are well suited to certain reading situations (plane trips) but less well suited to others (lying on the couch at home). The e-book may turn out to be more a complement to the printed book, as audiobooks have long been, rather than an outright substitute.

2. The early adopters, who tend also to be the enthusiastic adopters, have already made their move to e-books. Further converts will be harder to come by, particularly given the fact that 59 percent of American book readers say they have “no interest” in e-books, according to the Bowker report.

3. The advantages of printed books have been underrated, while the advantages of e-books have been overrated.

4. The early buyers of e-readers quickly filled them with lots of books, most of which have not been read. The motivation to buy more e-books may be dissipating as a result. Novelty fades.

5. The shift from e-readers to tablets is putting a damper on e-book sales. With dedicated readers, pretty much the only thing you can do is buy and read books. With tablets, you have a whole lot of other options. (To put it another way: On an e-reader, the e-reading app is always running. On a tablet, it isn’t.)

6. E-book prices have not fallen the way many expected. There’s not a big price difference between an e-book and a paperback. (It’s possible, suggests one industry analyst, that Amazon is seeing a plateau in e-book sales and so is less motivated to take a loss on them for strategic reasons.)

He ends saying this

"None of this means that, in the end, e-books won’t come to dominate book sales. My own sense is that they probably will. But, as we enter 2013, I’m considerably less confident in that prediction than I was a few years back, when, in the wake of the initial Kindle surge, e-book sales were growing at 200 or 300 percent annually. At the very least, it seems like the transition from print to electronic will take a lot longer than people expected. Don’t close that Gutenberg parenthesis just yet."

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