‘My Personal List Of Ebook Headaches’
Sorry to interrupt that fun-in-the-sun thing you’re doing, but some chilly winds are blowing in on a topic you may have thought you left safely tucked away and handled: ebooks and the digital disruption of publishing.
Publishers, if they want to survive…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.
Any time one of our key international publishing commentators gets going with a subhead and a warning like that, you know that all is not well, after all, in Modern Publishing. And coupled with some disturbing new noises coming out of London, those lines may be reason to ask for a black umbrella in that drink.
This is Rüdiger Wischenbart, writing Not One Prediction About Ebooks Has Been Correct So Far…A Summer Rant. And the frustrations of “Rüdi’s Rant” will be familiar to anyone working in the publishing business or using them as readers.
At the international industry level — which Wischenbart covers as the producer of the annual Global Ebook report — he’s echoing something noted by The Bookseller’s Philip Jones in several writings on the issue: ebooks have not performed on the global scene with any consistency.
Just this week, Jones is writing of a glimmer of hope, after all, for the “enhanced ebook,” in The Smart Book For A New Market:
We might be beginning to see that steady drift to mobile and tablet reading that many have long predicted. In that scenario while vanilla ebooks will remain the engine of the digital market, the racier stuff might now be done on new devices. Just as the print market has accommodated the ebook, so the enhanced ebook might yet carve out a space outside of what may be a robust but largely established e-ink market.
But this is something that might be considered in one of the worlds’ two most advanced e-reading markets, the UK.
It and the US have by far the deepest penetration by ebooks, while in other parts of the world, as Jones has written, the uptake on the technology simply hasn’t been all that dependable.
And this, Jones explored extensively in May, in How Fast Does Your Ebook Grow? at The Bookseller’s The FutureBook. That article was a direct response to Wischenbart’s release of the 2015 Global Ebook Report. In it, Jones noted “the prevailing mythology” that the huge shall inherit the Earth, with such thunder lizards as Facebook and YouTube overcoming all opposition.
But when it comes to ebooks, Jones wrote, “something got lost in translation”:
In mature book markets in non-English speaking countries, the rate of progress has been much slower [than in the US and UK], and in some cases non-existent. As the report notes, in these non-English speaking countries (including Germany, France, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, and Sweden), the market share of ebooks within the trade segment of the book market is below 10%, ranging from as little as 1 or 2%, to 4.3% in Germany. More alarmingly, even at such low levels of penetration, the report adds that growth is showing signs of flattening out.”
Jones cites several problems with this, including:
First, without the fillip of digital growth, these markets have not been as sheltered from the global recesssion as other sectors…
Second, bookshops even in digital-averse markets have been challenged by the undercurrents normally associated with ebook penetration.
And Now, Rantin’ Rüdi: Then It Gets Worse
A more genteel “rant” you’ll never find. Remind me to teach my friend and colleague Rüdi how to really rant sometime.
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).
And yet, there are real issues here being created by ebooks, Wischenbart writes, at a systemic level, underrated by many.
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.
A couple of specific ways this works, Wischenbart writes, is in skimming off people publishing most needs: the most avid readers and the most likely consumers to be wooed away by other entertainment media:
Most prominently, ebooks work most directly with 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.
What’s more, Wischenbart is worried about piracy, something an author in the States just messaged me about with great alarm. She tells me that she’s finding her titles on so many sites she has never engaged that it’s “getting overwhelming.”
The industry hates discussing this factor. But, given a widespread understanding of many “pirates” as eager readers who simply need access and streamlined convenience (not the professional, intentional, profiteering thieves that the “piracy” label paints them), Wischenbart reports that Europe’s piracy sites offer an attractive, convenient alternative, carefully couched in terms of fostering “reading culture” — potentially a strong tactical approach.
When the new “user experience” with ebooks compares poorly with other stuff, the next exit might be to a piracy site.
And when he gets to Amazon — not in connection with piracy, mind you, but simply as a force in an ebook-driven shift — the rant heard all the way from Austria starts bringing us neatly within earshot of another alarm going up. Here is Wischenbart:
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.
And now look at what Douglas McCabe is writing for us at The FutureBook in London:
The presence and role of Amazon are growing. It has a far greater share of the ebook marketplace than that of the physical book marketplace, creating a number of risks for the industry as a whole.
And that is about the gentlest thing McCabe has to say.
‘Insidious And Often Much Harder To Combat’
In one of the most sobering alarms of the summer, the independent research firm Enders Analysis in London has just issued an update to its consumer book trade outlook. Covered on the news side by my associate Sarah Shaffi at The Bookseller (paywall), the context and concerns of the report have been laid out here for us at The FutureBook (no paywall) by Enders CEO Douglas McCabe. McCabe tells us:
It is impossible to overstate how important it is that the industry innovates vigorously in the next two to three years.
No longer nice to have, he’s saying, full-on innovative development in the publishing arena is about to become a matter of survival. As Shaffi describes it in her write-up:
The problem is not “one of digital disruption within the industry, but that people are buying fewer books”.
And for us at The FutureBook, McCabe defines four areas of concern. I’m excerpting here:
- One, the consumer is spending more and more time on mobile devices, and only a very small amount of that time is devoted to reading…
- Two, service providers have content solutions that used to be solved by books. Wikipedia is the obvious example…
- Three, the presence and role of Amazon are growing. It has a far greater share of the ebook marketplace than that of the physical book marketplace…
- And four, the role of specialist high street bookshops – chains and independents – remains critical for the health of the industry, because as Nielsen data demonstrates, they continue to drive discovery and impulse buying in books.
McCabe’s view, shared with Joseph Evans, a research analyst he worked with on this at Enders, is that ebooks are now a known quantity and are understood, as Wischenbart and Jones have made clear.
Their growth leveling off, ebooks aren’t the print-slayers feared.
The currents gathering offshore now, McCabe writes, are fueled by mounting competition to reading from other entertainment. McCabe writes:
Books are now less immune to broader social, technology and consumption trends than in the past. The content economy has turned from a push to a pull structure, and it is impossible to envisage that books will not suffer in this process.
Don’t look to ebook subscriptions for a deus ex machina, McCabe says:
Consumer book subscriptions have not taken off (they represent about 0.5% of [UK] ebook sales), and only partly because publishers are tactically but not strategically investing in them. The main reason is reading is not a subscription activity in the way that music and video are.
And keep that life ring handy, discard no flotation devices:
Every genre will experience a different manifestation of the set of issues that are thrown up. It will become harder and harder to assess which bets to place because what works for one category for one publisher will not necessarily be relevant elsewhere. Problems for £25 cookery books or £5 reference publishing will tell publishers nothing about the declines in literary fiction or paperback business books.
The ebooks challenge is now well understood, and has not been as destructive as many feared. But the next disruptive waves will be smaller, slower, insidious and often much harder to combat.