Ebook the Cannibal
by Joel Naoum - October 8th, 2010
Basically since ebooks were first mooted as a possibility, there have been arguments about the ‘cannibalisation’ of the traditional book market by electronic books. On one side of the argument you have the optimists, who say that the availability and lower price of ebooks means that once people have bought an ereader they will buy more ebooks than they did before. On the other hand, you have the people who are saying that it won’t matter if people buy more ebooks, the lower prices will mean that ultimately publishers (and authors) will lose a certain amount of profit from the success of ebooks.
Sceptics – let me just say that there are people on both sides of this argument inside the publishing world, so don’t start throwing wild theories out there that the publishing industry as a whole has dragged its heels in order to retain the profitability of the industry.
Last week, new information emerged that suggests that in the two leading ebook sales generating genres (fantasy/sci-fi and romance) cannibilisation is definitely occurring. Snip:
Julie Meynink, business development director of Nielsen BookScan, said though it was early days, data from Nielsen BookScan US, which globally represents the biggest share of e-book sales, showed a decline in print sales within these two sectors. In the year to date sales of romance books in the US are down 7.5%, while science-fiction and fantasy sales are down, even when the effect of Stephenie Meyer is stripped out.
Of course, BookScan went on to point out that ebook readers in general buy more books and that 80% of people surveyed would never consider buying an ereader at all:
So in the end, the book-selling world may lose 25% or so of its print customers to ebooks, but those customers will likely buy more product than they would have if they didn’t use an ereader.
The question remaining, however, is whether this is a problem. Eoin Purcell seems to think so. As Purcell points out, the loss of 25% of sales of paper books to electronic books undermines the entire publishing economic model. As the cost per unit goes up, there is less room to do the deep discounting and price promotions that customers are used to getting when they buy books.
What Purcell’s ultimate point is, is that if the print run itself isn’t viable (and that may be the case for print runs between about 3000 and 10,000 copies), then the book won’t be published in the first place.
This leaves publishers with two solutions, either increase the price of the print book (which is likely to cause more people to go digital and/or fewer people to buy the book in the first place), or go completely digital for some titles. Purcell’s idea is that some titles would be digital only (perhaps with an option for print-on-demand), in order to fill this gap in profitability. This would mean publishers would have to become advocates for e-reading and have to actively convince readers to go digital – which isn’t something most publishers are doing right now.
My question for you all is whether you think this is viable. Would the availability of some titles in digital only entice you to buy an ereader? Those of you in sales probably have more of an insight than me into the old ‘pile them high and sell them cheap’ mantra of traditional bookselling, which would be adversely affected by this model. What do you think?