Passing the tipping point for eBooks and audiobooks

By now, most people will have seen someone reading a book using an Amazon Kindle eBook reading device, Sony Reader, Kobo (from Chapters-Indigo), Apple iPad or a smart phone. Early adopters include traveling retirees, who love being able to take along dozens of new books to read in a compact, 9-ounce, $200 device.

In June, I reported analysts’ claims that, “During 2010, over 8% of all book sales will be in electronic formats, compared to 4% during 2009, 2% in 2008 and about 1% in 2007.” That trend would have been exponential, DOUBLING each year.

Well, like a weatherman’s long-term outlook, those predictions should be revised with more recent data. It turns out that eBook sales have more than TRIPLED so far this year, and will likely be at around 14% of all book sales. Wow! Clearly what some people labeled as a “fad” isn’t going away until it eats everyone’s lunch.

A recent UK survey found that 19% of all British adults have downloaded at least one eBook from the Internet in the past 12 months. About 7% made a purchase, while the other 11% found free books. Either way, that is a lot of reading that wasn’t purchased in local bookstores. Likely residents of Canada and the USA are acquiring eBooks at a similar pace.

When Ken Follett’s 1,008-page “Fall of Giants” was released in September, it sold 20,000 copies in Amazon Kindle eBook format in the first 7 days – more than in hardcover, even though the eBook was priced higher (US$19.99) than the hardcover edition (discounted to US$19.39). Ken likely makes 50% of the retail price on eBooks, so he pocketed $200,000 just for the sale of Kindle copies in a week. Not a shabby start, eh?

How will eBook sales growth impact bookstores, authors and publishers? In many ways. But first let’s look at another segment of the book publishing marketplace where the change to online sales is even more dramatic: audio books.

Most of us have listened to a book being read to us by a recorded actor. Back in the 1950s in Winnipeg, my childhood included listening to Jimmy Stewart reading “Winnie the Pooh” stories in a rather bizarre attempt at a British accent. Those were 45 rpm discs. Vinyl recordings gave way to cassette tapes. Then CDs took over the market. And then DVDs. Now the era of having a physical audio book is nearing its end. So far in 2010, we’re at a pace for 43% of all audio book sales to be via download, compared to 57% for all physical media. At some point soon – a tipping point – it will no longer be economical for publishers to manufacture the CD or DVD versions.

Unfortunately, downloads of eBooks and audio books are bad news for local bookstores, since those are sales NOT happening through the store. How long stores will survive will depend on what else in offered (gifts, food, coffee, live entertainment…) to replace declining book sales. (Ironically, used book stores may weather this transitional storm in better shape, as new-book stores become less common.)

The growth in eBooks has been good news for those independent authors who have a talent to online self-promotion. Using social media (Facebook, twitter, blogs, Lexy, etc.) it is possible for a “little guy” to break into the Kindle bestseller ranks – sometimes even without a version of the book available in printed format. In the new eBook marketplace, the big publishing houses no longer have the huge advantages of dominating the supply chain (as they did with placing printed books on bookstore shelves).

A few of our authors who offer their writing in both eBook and printed editions have begun selling more eBooks than printed books, something that wasn’t happening six months ago. The good news is that their sales numbers for printed books are not decreasing, so total royalties are going up.

Not wanting to miss out on sales, publishers (our Agio Publishing House included) are scrambling to ensure all their titles are available in a wide range of electronic formats and through all major online distributors. At this point, some reading devices use proprietary formats (such as Kindle’s .azw and Sony’s BBeB), and most can display .epub. As the reading devices become more sophisticated, they will be able to display the trusty Acrobat .pdf format and the new HTML 5.

No one is sure how much included video and hyperlinking will become the norm, as books appear to be evolving from basic words-on-a-page-with-a-few-illustrations to full on multimedia entertainment. The borders between a “book” and a “movie” and “educational/entertaining products” are blurring.

Fortunately most authors appreciate that there will be many choices in the months to come, as the book industry moves through tipping points and re-aligns itself to new market forces. Indeed, as one of our authors, retired RCMP Superintendent Scotty Gardiner, wrote in his memoir, “There is no such thing as LUCK. Instead focus on PREPARATION, so you recognize OPPORTUNITIES.”

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