Guest Column: The 300-Pound E-Gorilla

For independent publishers, is the rush to jump into the e-book fray based more on hype than smart business sense?

In many industries, there is a moment that changes everything. For the horse-drawn carriage manufacturers, it was the invention of the automobile. For the telegraph company, it was the telephone. For the music industry, it was MP3 downloads. And for book publishers, it appears to be the e-book—or is it?

It would seem that the e-gorilla indeed has entered the room. All you have to do is read the continuing stream of news stories that deal with the “spectacular” growth of the e-book market—or, that herald a new version of the Kindle or the debut of Apple’s iPad—and it would seem that the industry is being turned upside-down. Pity the poor publishers that get left behind, clinging to their old-fashioned paper books, because their days are numbered. Or, at least, that’s what some prognosticators would have you believe.

As someone who has spent more than 30 years in this business, I have a different take. Granted, if I had been building buggies, I might have considered manufacturing a few of those newfangled horseless carriages. But book publishing is a very different animal, and because of that, I don’t think that our future is as uncertain as many now claim it to be.

Recent figures suggest that approximately three percent ($200 million) of total book-market revenue ($80 billion) comes from e-book sales. Experts estimate that this number could double over the next two years to six percent. Let’s say that in five years, that six-percent figure then triples. This would mean that 18 percent ($1.2 billion) of market revenue would come from e-book sales, and 82 percent ($78.8 billion) still would come from books on paper. That certainly would impact our sales, but it would hardly spell the end of the book world as we know it.

To better evaluate the impact of e-books on our industry, it’s important to understand the types of books that are being purchased in electronic form. Strangely, few studies have detailed this. General estimates indicate that e-textbooks represent about 15 percent of the overall e-market, attributing the balance of sales to trade titles.

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