Ebook Sales Are Down, But Are We Surprised?
I’ve admitted before on this blog that I’m not a big ebook reader. Despite being branded as a tech-savvy, social-media-rampant millennial, I still prefer print reads. But I’m not a “I love the smell of old books,” person or the “I enjoy holding something tangible in my hands” type. When it comes down to it, ebooks simply aren’t useful to me. My eyesight is fine so the font sizing function, while wonderful for many, does little for me. I don’t have a reason to lug a ton of books with me at once nor have I amassed an unwieldy book collection (yet) so the storage benefits are as yet unappealing. And the ability to instantaneously purchase an ebook -- while helpful when I was in college -- isn’t really necessary for pleasure reads. Plus, I still enjoy browsing through a bookstore IRL.
I say all this to point out that ebooks don’t offer additional value to me, and I would venture to say I am part of a majority. The most recent financial reports from Hachette and the Association of American Publishers (AAP) seem to support this theory. Both report a downturn in ebook sales. According to the AAP’s April report, ebook sales dropped by 15% in the trade sector, down $20.6 million. Lagardere reported its first-half results for 2015, noting a significant drop in ebook sales at Hachette from 29% in June 2014 to 24% in June 2015.
Mike Shatzkin has written a great post on the topic and theorizes that agency pricing is to blame for the sales dip because it has allowed publishers to keep ebook prices high. Publishers successfully raised ebook prices when ereaders were still novel devices and demand for ebooks was high. But today the value simply doesn’t match the price.
I want a unique reading experience in ebooks, one that goes beyond mimicking print and utilizes all the amazing capabilities that digital can offer. I envision an ebook that has unlimited resources like the internet, but is focused on a singular topic so that I don’t become distracted.
For example, when the next installment of the Game of Thrones series is (finally) released, I’ll be looking for an enhanced ebook edition in which I can quickly look up characters and read a synopsis of what they’ve done in previous books. I also wouldn’t mind some reader commentary embedded in the margins because there are a ton of fan theories about different characters and plot lines, and half the fun of reading GoT is discussing these theories with friends.
Many startups have already created innovative solutions along these lines. Narrative Technologies has created a platform that allows authors to build non-linear stories in which readers can easily jump into different narratives or related works, without losing their place in the main story. ReadUps is another startup hoping to bring more to the ereading experience by facilitating book discussions within the ebook itself. Readers can create a “ReadUp” for a specific title, which allows the group to leave comments for one another within the story and instant message one another for a limited time. There is a great deal of innovation in the education space as well. Robert J. Glushko, adjunct professor at UC Berkeley, has written for Book Business about his work to create a completely customizable textbook that students and professors can tweak to fit a 101 course or a 400-level seminar.
The technology to make ebooks better exists. The problem is that, by in large, major publishers aren’t pursuing these avenues. It seems to me that publishers are still intent on creating ebooks cheaply and charging only slightly less than print. Ebooks are still seen as a cost-savings -- print without the manufacturing and warehouse costs -- not the completely new and innovative products that they can be. Until I find some sort of utility in ebooks that I don’t already have in print, you’ll still see me browsing physical bookshelves. And for those who aren’t avid readers like myself? They’re probably binge-watching on Netflix for a mere $7.99 a month.
Ellen Harvey is a freelance writer and editor who covers the latest technologies and strategies reshaping the publishing landscape. She previously served as the Senior Editor at Publishing Executive and Book Business.