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Fans of Print Remain Hopeful vs. Ebooks, Despite the Cold Equations

Aug 9, 2012   [permalink]

Tom Godwin's "The Cold Equations" has a lesson to impart to writers looking at the growth of ebooks vs. print and hoping that print will remain a dominant percent of book sales.

"The Cold Equations," if you haven't read it (and you should), is a classic SF story where the harsh reality of math and physical laws win out over the hopes they'll somehow get bent because we really really want them to.

In the ebook vs. print sales debate, the numbers and the cold equations are all in favor of ebooks. Many people who prefer print books might wish this weren't so, but reality is what reality is. (And, for writers, the question becomes how to plan for it.)

There are many reports of ebook sales overtaking print sales in one way or another, yet, change being hard for people, many push back against the headlines with hopeful thoughts that the reasons are because the numbers are misrepresented, etc.

My crystal ball continues to suggest that ebooks will largely replace print by 2025 (if not well before; as I've said since the early 2000s, even back when ebooks where 0.1% of sales and many folks said nawww, they'll never catch on at all). The reasoning, and the mathematical curve-fitting analysis of the adoption rate S-curve, remain the same.

Print will probably continue as a niche, says my magic 8-ball, and won't vanish entirely (even though new releases on VHS tape and 33rpm LPs largely have).

But the factors are all working against print: The cost of materials (paper isn't getting cheaper), the cost of shipping (fuel isn't getting cheaper), the dent that the returns system puts into print but not electronic editions (plus the unpredictability of it, which doesn't play well with financially risk-averse, bottom-line oriented publishers, i.e., all the major ones), the improvement of technology (e-reader technology, e-ink, e-paper, etc. will only get better, to the point where one might envision a codex bound volume of 300 paper-thin sheets of e-paper), network access will only get better worldwide (so one can grab a book any time, any where), the ability to take more risks on content with ebooks because of the lower production costs, the "getting comfortable with change" factor that allows more people to accept a new thing is only in favor of ebooks, surveys show that very few people actively dislike e-readers once they've tried them, and so on.

I can't offhand think of any tailwinds that are working in favor of print, just tailwinds for ebooks and headwinds for print.

Just because today ebooks are roughly the same order of magnitude as print sales is no indication we've reached any kind of steady state. (Remember than when ebooks were 0.1% of sales many pundits said that was the steady state.) The product adoption "S-curve" is the thing to watch. When it starts to really flatten out (i.e. year-over-year ebook sales are flat, 0% growth), then we'll know we've found equilibrium. However, year-over-year ebook sales are still growing at a huge rate. Print sales, meanwhile, are flat and/or declining. The ebook growth rate will have to start slowing down a lot before it can plateau, and we don't even see it slowing down much yet. That suggests we're still in the early-middle to maybe middlish part of the S-curve. The left half the S-curve is more or less a mirror of the right half, so we can surmise that ebooks have a lot of market share to gain still ahead of them, and will gain it within a few years. Based on the S-curve and my own curve-fitting to it, I would not be surprised to see the end result being that print captures 10% or less of sales.

It's worth pointing out that the AAP's data for ebook sales vs. print paint a generally similar picture (the AAP reported that 2012 first quarter ebook sales surpassed hardcover sales; and are basically even with paperback sales — $282M ebook, $230M hardcover, $300M paperback, $99M mmpb). Amazon reports ebooks are already their #1 format, but they push them; nonetheless, it's certainly not a counterexample showing the health of print. So, right, ebooks have not yet overtaken all print formats, but one train is accelerating rapidly and the other train is slowing down, so if the trends continue (and there's no apparent reason they shouldn't), ebooks will overtake all print sales fairly soon, and continue pulling ahead.

Some folks may not like what the data show the trend is and may wish it otherwise, but from the standpoint of the cold equations, it will be what it will be. Authors would be wise to plan for the (strong) possibility that ebooks will be the primary form of books within a few years.

For example, authors might well look to get the best deal they can on electronic rights, and examine offers from publishers not in light of today's ebook sales figures, but also, e.g., in light of a scenario where ebook sales might be 90%+ of sales.

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