Ebook the Cannibal

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?

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Joel Naoum

Joel Naoum is a Sydney-based book editor, publisher, blogger and writer. He is passionate about the possibilities of social media and digital publishing opens up for authors, publishers, booksellers and the whole book industry.

10 thoughts on “Ebook the Cannibal”

  1. What about the possibility of buying a digital copy of books? Everyone talks about e-readers as if there’s been no other development in the way we access data.
    Personally, I can think of nothing more annoying than reading off of a kindle/e-book reader – but if the book-as-artefact is becoming too expensive what about leaving it to the discretion of the reader to decide how he/she reads it?
    If I’m buying a cheap trashy novel maybe the reader would be happy enough to print it off at work and read it in A4 on the way home? Even if you account for individual printing costs a loose leaf A4 copy is a hell of a lot cheaper than a brand new $30/40 hardcover.
    It’s a flawed thought, but is just a thought.

    1. That’s a very good point, though. I actually think it’s already possible. Most publishers sell their books as protected PDFs, which can be printed a number of times if you like. Speaking as someone who has read a fair share of manuscripts on sheafs of A4 paper though, I’d prefer it on a Kindle every time…

  2. I suspect that once e-readers become disposable commodities they’ll explode into general use. Effectively most people have access to them now, via apps for smart phones. But then most people would never consider reading a book on a phone for all sorts of ergonomic/aesthetic reasons. However something like a Kindle or Nook, say two gen advanced, retailing at sub fifty bucks, I can see them everywhere.

    At that point my guess is the market splits, with certain titles released only online, while premium earners still get the hard copy treatment. Interestingly, under this model, chain bookstores die horribly, but indies can survive as niche sellers.

    1. I really like the idea that a system can exist where indie booksellers survive. Though I think the death of the indie bookseller has been predicted for decades and hasn’t yet happened – it’s pretty hard to kill an industry that already runs off nothing but enthusiasm for the product and credit card debt.

  3. Do you know what my last Amazon order was? It was for 13 fantasy books, the entirety of the Malazan epic by Steven Erickson. It was much easier for me to get them in one burst, because I wanted them to be on hand and available.

    I am moving house at the moment, and 90% of my boxes are books, 70% of those books being fantasy series.

    I have never, ever wanted an e-book reader more.
    I have a feeling that if I do get one, my love for epic fantasy series will be my main market, whereas my literary fiction, with its beautiful covers and slim bindings, will continue to grace my book cases.

    1. That’s exactly what I do. I only buy the physical copies of books I love (or think will make me look more intelligent by being on my shelf). I still have an embarrassingly large quantity of trashy fantasy novels, but nowhere near as many as I have on my ereader(s). Anywho, you sound like the perfect candidate for a Kindle. I heartily recommend the new one – review to come in the next week or so!

  4. As I pointed out in the comments of the article you linked to, the “cannibalization” in these two genres has seen their total market share increase by around 40%. Seems to me that ebooks are making them more viable, not less.

    As to your question: I bought an ebook reader primarily for the reason Patrick mentioned: to save space in the house. It has lead to a change in my reading habits: I buy and read a lot more books now, I’d guess at least 5x more.

    1. That is precisely the point I’m making, Chris. Market share increase doesn’t help when the profits end up being lower for print, and the current economic model relies on the acquisition of titles based on a cost per unit for print. The only way around this is to acquire titles for digital release first, and use print-on-demand for physical copies. However, this would detract from one of the most effective sales techniques available to booksellers – pile them high and sell them cheap. Presumably this will drive even more people towards digital, or away from books altogether.

      At any rate, all it shows is that the swing of market share towards ebooks is going to fundamentally change the industry. Not saying it’s a bad thing – just that it’s a new thing!

    1. There have been a number of studies on the environmental impact of ebooks versus paper books. I might do a post on it at some point. Here’s an article if you’re curious:

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