Electronic books: Whither the market in 2011?

Posted on by Mike Evans

Stack of booksThis has been the year when the future of book reading was decided. That future lies with electronic downloads and the dead-tree market will eventually die. Publishers can subsidise their printing and distribution costs by over-charging for downloads only for a short time. Eventually, commercial pressure will reduce download costs as new electronic publishers jump on the bandwagon and more authors turn to self-publishing. 

The breakthrough in 2010 is largely down to the iPad. The blanket publicity surrounding Apple's new device has brought e-books to the fore, and millions of new owners have tried reading e-books for the first time. They didn't have to make a decision to buy a book reader, they just downloaded a couple of free apps and they were in business. Amazon, too, have played their part, both by reducing Kindle device prices to affortability and by extensive advertising. We have no sales figures for Kindles, but there is no doubt they are selling in huge numbers. 

The growth of the market has not been without controversy. Nothing has polarised opinion in 2011 more than the disagreement between back-lit-screen lovers and e-ink-screen fans. The poor old iPad, which has done more for electronic books than any other single device, has come in from enormous flack from those who think e-ink is the only screen for reading a book. Sony, Kindle and other e-ink users have heaped criticism on the iPad because of "reflectivity" and "poor battery life".

This difference of opinion is irrelevant in my view. The market will come to the view that there is room for both technologies. I regularly read books on both types of screen and I can see advantages and disadvantages in both. On balance, I have to say, I prefer back-lit screens because they are generally more usable than e-ink devices which demand a good ambient light source. But I wouldn't kill for the principle.

Frankly, it doesn't matter how or where we read our e-books. The Kindle app has shown that one eco-system can span all devices from all manufacturers. It works well and enables me to share my book reading between back-lit Apple devices and the e-ink Kindle. In 2010 we accepted that electronic books are here to stay; but we also learned that content is king and reading device is secondary.

As the demand for e-books expands dramatically in 2011 we will see more and more pressure on content providers to introduce a real price differential between downloads and dead-tree books. I haven't bought a "real" book for nearly three years and, frankly, I object to subsidising those who prefer to buy paper books, whether from the high street or from the likes of Amazon. The present situation cannot continue and publishers will be forced to cave in.

Once we achieve real differential pricing, there will be even more incentive to turn to electronic downloads and the market for physical books will shrink by the month. Publishers will fight a rear-guard action in order to get downloaders to pay for their expensive production methods. But, like newspaper publishers, they will eventually have to fly the white flag. Electronic publishing is dramatically cheaper and the printing and distribution model of newspapers and book publishers is now doomed.

I foresee a time - possibly even in 2011 - when the cost of an electronic book will be split three ways, with the lion's share going to the author, a reasonable commission for the distributor (Amazon, for instance) and a tiny slice for the publisher. All they really need is a proofreader, a publicist and a quality controller. All that paper, cardboard, printing and distribution is now totally wasteful and unnecessary.

What surprises me is that the warmists haven't jumped on this particular bandwagon. Books and newspapers consume millions of trees and harm the environment in many other ways, not least the "carbon footprint" of distribution. There's a good argument for allocating more environmental blame to publishers than to manufacturers of 4x4 vehicles.

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