A Stalled Digital Book Revolution?

3 thoughts.

September 30, 2015

The 9/22 NYTimes story The Plot Twist: E-Book Sales Slip, and Print Is Far From Dead is getting some attention in higher ed circles.

The digital book market seems to have plateaued at about 20 percent, with e-book sales even falling by 10 percent if the first five months of 2015. E-book subscription services have not gained traction. (You can read here why I cancelled my Kindle Unlimited subscription).  

Last year, only 12 million people purchased a dedicated e-reading device, such as the Kindle or the Nook or the Kobo, down from 20 million in 2011. Even independent bookstores seem to be showing signs of a health, as the number of locations went from 1,660 in 2010 to 2,227 in 2015.

How can we make sense of these digital book trends?

1.  The Danger of Averages:

Critics of digital books were no doubt delighted by this NYTimes story. Many of my closest friends (including my wife) hate digital books, and will only borrow or buy paper books. The Times story may also give the library community some pause as they ponder the shift from print to digital. What say you library community?

I wonder, however, how our understanding of digital book dynamics would change if we had access to some more data. 

Today’s big book buyers may prefer print, but what about tomorrow’s? What book formats to heavy buyers of books prefer? What is the impact of audiobooks on digital and paper book sales? Do digital book sales mimic paper sales, or do digital book buyers purchase a wider variety of books from a more diverse group of authors? 

The averages presented in the Times story provide us part of the picture, but do not allow us to come to a comprehensive or nuanced understanding of the changing book market.

2. The Limits of Zero Sum Thinking:

We tend to think of digital and physical books as competitors, locked in a zero sum competition for buyers and attention. But what if this is not right? What if buying e-books and audiobooks makes us more likely to spend time in, and purchase books from, a physical bookseller? What if reading digital books causes us to recommend books to colleagues and friends, books that may be purchased as paper copies?

The competition for reading, and for book buying, is not about print vs. digital. Rather, the competition for books comes from apps. 

Apps? Yes, apps are eating other mediums (including the content that was once delivered by a browser), and apps are swallowing more of the time that could have been used for reading. 

Apps for entertainment. Apps for gaming. Apps for social media. The solitary relationship of a reader with a book is being replaced by the solitary relationship of a person with an app.

The real question we should be asking is not how much of reading is digital, but rather how much are people reading? Reading is reading. Paper, e-book, app, audiobook - it doesn’t matter. 

Reading books is a habit, and habits must be developed. We spend so much time taking sides on the digital learning debate that we lose sight of the larger goal to encourage book reading.

3. The Impact of the Amazon Monopoly:

The article points out that Amazon controls 65% of the e-book market. Audible, which is owned by Amazon, controls almost all of the audiobook market. (Does anyone know Audible’s audiobook market share, I can’t find it?). Taking e-books and audiobooks together, I think that it is fair to say that Amazon has a near monopoly on digital books.

This dominant market power will only increase as Amazon’s control of the digital book ecosystem solidifies.  When I buy a Kindle book, I look to see if it is Whispersync enabled, meaning that I can seamlessly switch between the e-book and the audiobook. 

Since I read only digital books, I read my books on Amazon devices, (I have a Kindle Paperwhite), or the Amazon Kindle or Audible apps on my iPhone. 

My books are locked into Amazon’s proprietary formats, meaning that I can’t read them on other devices or apps, or share or sell the digital books that I’ve purchased with people outside of the Amazon ecosystem.

We should be trying to understand the impact of the Amazon digital book monopoly on the larger digital book market. 

My sense is that Amazon’s dominant digital book market power is good for readers and authors in the short-to-medium run, but potentially very bad in the long-run. 

Amazon’s digital book monopoly has enabled the company to initially keep digital book prices down (but no longer), and to invest in growing market share by rolling out innovations such as the Kindle e-reader and Whispersync.

The lack of meaningful digital book competition will eventually hurt readers and authors (as well as publishers), as competition is the only force will reliably drive innovation and keep down prices. 

If we care about the long term future of book reading, then we should be worried about the long-term implications of Amazon’s digital book monopoly. 

What we as consumers, and as representatives of colleges and libraries, can do to push more competition into the digital book market is a question for which I have no answer.

My hope is that we can start a new conversation on the impact of digital books, and on the future of reading.

What were your reactions to the Times article?



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