Not one prediction about ebooks has been correct so far. Why? A summer rant.
July 20, 2015 by ruediger

Let’s face the simple truth: Not one prediction about ebooks (as far as I know) has been correct so far:

No, ebooks will NOT go away any time soon. But no, again, they will not replace printed books, not even mass paperbacks, within a decade or so.

Thus far, ebooks have strongly impacted only on some markets: English language (US, UK), and genre fiction (big fiction bestsellers, fantasy, romance, young adult) – and ebooks helped propel self-publishing.

Interestingly, in the various – and very diverse – Non-English markets of Europe, ebooks have stalled early on, in a very different pattern from US or UK. But strangely, they behaved remarkably similar for those niches of genre fiction and blockbuster novels (and found plenty of people downloading those in English, and not, say, in Slovenian or Dutch translations).

Publishers, particularly in Europe, have had their hand in all this, by keeping prices high, and by believing in the gospel of iron cast copyright protection technology (DRM).

Now several of the big companies start learning lesson 01: They abandon hard DRM, and replace it by water marking – to get “rid of a road block” (phrases buchreport, reporting on Holtzbrinck¬†giving up hard DRM for Germany, following suit after Bonnier had decided likewise in June, and a growing number of others before that). In Italy or Scandinavia, hard DRM has had no strong showing from the beginning almost.

My personal list of ebook headaches

Every time I purchase a (non Kindle/Amazon) ebook (because I dislike those walled gardens), I firmly struggle, and hate, the lack of usability on ANY of the major ebook platforms I tend to use. Here are some real life examples:

  • Kobo has (for me) a terrible search engine, as it makes some kind of a difference for me with an Austrian account (as opposed, it seems, to what they have for a German user – argh!!!). Behind that riddle seems to sit a mix of territorial rights and bad meta data –¬†which doesn’t help me a lot, I must say;
  • Ebook.de has a search engine and shop environment which together seem to visualize every step of development and changing partnerships that¬†the platform¬†has had to serve in the past several years – and even getting a title into a bookmark list, instead of the buy basket takes a little adventure in figuring out how, and why, a function changes names along the process;
  • Direct purchases at notably British publishers’ websites often confront¬†the mysterious red lines of territorial rights;
  • Buying a French book teaches you a thorough lesson about how France wants to be different – it works in the end, but you better bring some time, and all your wits and persistence.

I assume you do NOT want me to go on and on and on.

Perhaps I am not the only one who got frustrated. Many a reader may have had enough – and a number has¬†moved over¬†to¬†more easy-to-use piracy offerings. Not necessarily because they want “to steal the book“. But because … well, I do not want to entering guessing either.

Here is my main concern: We simply do not know.

We learn about a drop in ebook sales of 2.5% in the US (AAP StatShot, quoted in Publishers Weekly). But what does this mean? Again a few exemplary thoughts:

We know how unevenly ebook sales are across genres, but also publishers. From Europe, I know that ebooks seem to privilege massively the biggest houses, plus a few more publishers who really drive digital.

In Germany, a few independent houses (Luebbe, Aufbau) report that their ebook revenue share is¬†over 15%. Even in ebook agnostic France, a few romance and erotica specialists claim strong digital sales, and we know that a few blockbuster memoirs found their way well onto readers’ screens, albeit through illegal downloads.

For Germany, or France, we still do not have any meaningful break out numbers, by genre, or monthly developments, but only broad overall figures for, supposedly, all of “trade” or consumer publishing, which are basically meaningless. We do not even know, for the industry, the part that year end holiday sales play, for digital sales. And the same applies to¬†any other EU market aside from the UK.

Which also means that we have no idea whatsoever of the real impact of piracy on (p&e) book sales. We simply don’t know. (Just as a thought experiment: Are illegal sales curbing down mostly niche titles, available on highly proficient illegal platforms, and are particularly¬†harmful to diversity of titles published by those specialist copyright holders? Or ¬†are the mostly a nuisance¬†to¬†blockbuster fiction and their ‘Big Houses‘ publishers? Or is the leakage paramount? We don’t know.)

What I could see in fact, through our research, is a pretty staggering increase in page visits at major piracy sites across European markets, and both their usability as well as the mounting emphasis from¬†these sites (they pretend, seriously, to foster ‘reading culture’) which are obviously well¬†echoed by readers. Not by nerds or hackers, but by the most serious, ambitious page devouring folks!)

We have documented some of this in the Global eBook report 2015, and plan for some updates, notably on pricing and on piracy, for autumn 2015.

But here are already a few anticipating thoughts:

Ebooks are NOT a marginal bug in the book publishing system, as a market share (in Europe) of overall 2, 3 or 4% of all consumer sales might indicate. Ebooks interfere with the entire system, as they impact on a number of very sensitive points, by exercising significant leverage.

Most prominently, they work most directly with all kinds of particularly dedicated consumers who specialize heavily on one niche, who read much more than average, etc.

Second, ebooks set a precedent for many more readers, by bringing the ‘book‘ (that previously ‘special‘ thing) on par with all other media content, which literally trains readers at comparing their pricing as well as the convenience of access, and – very important for the cultural classes – their ‘symbolic status‘, with other formats, other content and media, on which¬†they spend time and money.

Third, when the new ‘user experience‘ with books compares poorly with other stuff, the next exit might be a piracy site.

I made an effort of not mentioning the Amazon factor so far in that lengthy story. But here it enters the stage, unavoidably. The ‘A-impact‘ is perhaps not primarily what Amazon is blamed for, its tax-optimizing habits, or its tough negotiations with publishers over margins. Amazon’s main threat comes probably from their offer of being “the other – who claims to re-invent the future of books and reading, and of all other digital media content anyway. Which is also arguably Amazon’s softest spot: Imagine from how many sides and angles¬†new challengers can – and will! – come in. Amazon’s future is all but secured.

For the old world publishers, who today struggle with the first wave of change, this comes with little relief. But it sure carries a simple lesson:

Ebooks are complicated. They look small, even marginal in many places. But we see how a huge, old dyke at once gets many little leaks, and readers’ attention held back for long by that dyke, is curiously exploring all the other leads around.

Publishers, if they want to survive, and fix their dyke, will better learn the tricks of ebooks quickly. Not for today’s minimal revenue share, or flattening growth curve. But to remain their readers’ best choice tomorrow, again.

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