Wednesday 27 March 2013

eBooks and the Myth of Market Penetration

Stabilization – it’s been a buzzword lately in the industry.  A lot of folks are claiming that eBooks are close to reaching some kind of saturation point and that they’ll stabilize at a certain percentage of the market. Usually the claim falls somewhere in the forty percent range.
There are a couple of things that make me think this might be wrong.
First, the reach of eBook stores run by companies such as Apple and Kobo is constantly growing. Both of those stores  give authors easy access to fifty countries.  Amazon now has separate sites for nine countries and sells to the rest of the world through the US site. 
The second (and more important) point deals with the fate of the brick and mortar side of book sales. eBooks are an incredibly disruptive force in the market. It’s not so long since the demise of Borders and, yet, folks still talk about stabilization as if nobody else could be in trouble. Barnes & Noble recently announced plans to close somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty stores a year for the next decade.
Call me a jaded cynic, but when a CEO tells us that they need to cut a few stores, it usually means that there’s still a whole iceberg of bad news sitting under the water. Add to this a bad holiday report,  where the Nook division showed a 13% dip for the nine week period leading up to years end, and you suddenly understand why they might be offering a free Simple Touch with the purchase of every Nook HD tablet.
B&N are one of the few remaining bastions of high volume paper book sales. Every time a company like this rolls over and stops swimming, the shift accelerates.  As the number of outlets shrinks, the efficiencies of the old model wither away. With fewer places taking large orders, the print runs will likely get smaller and the cost per unit will go up.  If the trend continues, we may even see the return of the book salesman, driving around their little territories with a vanload of books. Somehow, I doubt they can find anyone willing to hawk books to gas stations or corner markets anymore.
Don’t get me wrong, I love bookstores. They’re a great place to pick up a pound of dark roast, a new novelty mug, a nice scarf and maybe even a few toys for the kids, but they haven’t sold me a book for two years now.
I know the graphic would seem to indicate that I want to see an end to paper books, but it isn’t the case. I just happened to think of it while writing this and thought it might be fun to make an image like that. Frankly, the more options that readers and writers have, the less chance that any one company or group will be able to get a stranglehold on the industry.
The reader is the gatekeeper now. It ought to stay that way.