The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of the eBook Revolution


It seems like you couldn’t look at a book blog the past week without seeing a post on Amazon’s recent press release, noting that they’re now selling more Kindle books than print books. From their  May 19, 2011 press release:

  • Since April 1, for every 100 print books Amazon.com has sold, it has sold 105 Kindle books. This includes sales of hardcover and paperback books by Amazon where there is no Kindle edition. Free Kindle books are excluded and if included would make the number even higher.
  • So far in 2011, the tremendous growth of Kindle book sales, combined with the continued growth in Amazon’s print book sales, have resulted in the fastest year-over-year growth rate for Amazon’s U.S. books business, in both units and dollars, in over 10 years. This includes books in all formats, print and digital. Free books are excluded in the calculation of growth rates.
  • In the five weeks since its introduction, Kindle with Special Offers for only $114 is already the bestselling member of the Kindle family in the U.S.
  • Amazon sold more than 3x as many Kindle books so far in 2011 as it did during the same period in 2010.
  • Less than one year after introducing the UK Kindle Store, Amazon.co.uk is now selling more Kindle books than hardcover books, even as hardcover sales continue to grow. Since April 1, Amazon.co.uk customers are purchasing Kindle books over hardcover books at a rate of more than 2 to 1.

Pretty amazing, considering the Kindle has only been around since 2007.  Revolutionary even.  Of course, every revolution has its casualties and the eBook revolution looks to continue that trend.  There will be repercussions for the publishing industry, retailers, and eventually the consumer.  Let’s explore the good, the bad, and the ugly of the rise of the ebook.

The Good:

  • Ebooks look like they’re here to stay, either in physical format (Kindle, Nook, Kobo et al) or as apps on other platforms such as the Apple iPad or Blackberry Playbook.  Great news for those of us who jumped on the bandwagon early.  No more worries about “niche” markets or disappearing fads.
  • Now that eBooks are no longer unproven technology to publishers, maybe they’ll take a look through the back catalogs and transfer some if not all of their out of print titles to digital format.  It’s always frustrating to hear of a good book only to find that you’ll have to pay through the nose to acquire a rare copy or to find that only selected books in a series have been translated to digital format.  Just recently I was looking for Flashman by George MacDonald Frasier and discovered that the original is not available on Kindle but Flashman and the Tiger is.  (Book eleven?  Really?!)
  • eBooks are discounted in comparison to physical print.  Generally, a new release hardcover costs the same as a pocket novel when bought in eBook format.  The consumer gets a break, and the publisher certainly doesn’t have the overhead that they would with print and shipping costs.
  • It’s much easier for anyone to publish a book.  No more book agents, rejection letters, etc.  Simply write your book, pay your fees to have it digitized, set your price and go.  eBooks could lead to greater variety at lower prices.

The Bad:

  • It’s much easier for anyone to publish a book.  Think about that for a second.  Bad writing, bad or nonexistent editing, spelling errors–publishers have editors work with aspiring and established writers for a reason.  Sifting through a lot of crap to find that rare gem is not something to look forward to.
  •  How is this going to affect editors, literary agents and publishers as a whole?  They’ll still be working with authors to bring product to market, but many authors will forgo their services and self publish in hope of garnering a greater return.  After all, why take a percentage when you can take the whole thing (minus your own minimal costs)?  Furthermore, will literary agents become redundant?  Remember, it was only a few years ago that travel agents were a real thing. (Okay, technically they’re still around.  Used one lately?)

The Ugly:

  • Now that retailers such as Amazon have a foothold on the market, will they (and the publishers) still feel the need to sell eBooks at a reduced price?  One of the biggest draws of eBooks (for me) is their affordability, but as eBooks proliferate the market, what’s to stop the prices from slowly increasing until they are comparable to physical print?
  • Physical print–with the increased pressure of eBook sales and diminished interest in a physical product–will book prices increase?  Will print runs become shorter (and therefore more expensive) due to reduced demand?  Who’s going to pick up that greater expense?
  • What of brick and mortar book stores?  Are they going to go the route of the video store?
  • Technically, you don’t own an eBook, you lease it.  Libraries have already run into problems with publishers who want them to pay up again (re-“lease” their titles) after a certain number of reads.
  • Finally, how long will retailers maintain your eBook catalog?  Say Amazon has a couple of bad years and ends up in bankruptcy.  Then what?

This is all conjecture for the moment.  The industry is too new and the numbers too fluid to make anything but predictions, however, just like any revolution, the eBook revolution will radically transform the publishing industry in a very short period of time. 

 *For further reading on the subject, try John Steele Gordon’s article, ” The End of the Book?”  at the American or a really interesting article by Narasu Rebbapragada at PC World entitled, “E-Book Prices Fuel Outrage–and Innovation.”

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