It took the book market in a storm as a status symbol, and threatening to shut down paper editions. But years after, the e-book seems to be losing its shine. A compilation of reports of some experts sheds more light on this.
Simon Rowberry: Nowadays, the ebook has a reputation for technological conservatism – so it is easy to forget that there was significant anticipation for the Kindle’s arrival ten years ago.
In a 2009 editorial, The Bookseller declared the device was “a giant leap for all”. The Kindle was frequently compared to the iPod’s transformative effect on the music industry. No wonder – the ebook format promised several advantages. Users could adjust typographic settings for improved accessibility; there was an increased level of portability; and the move to digital distribution promised the ability to purchase publishers’ extensive back catalogues.
But despite the early promise of the ebook, many are questioning whether it has lived up to these expectations. In recent years, the ebook has faced significant backlash amid reports of declining sales in trade publishing. The Publishing Association Yearbook 2016 noted a 17% slump in the sale of consumer ebooks while physical book revenue increased by 8%. Over the last couple of years, audiobooks have replaced ebooks as digital publishing’s critical darling on the back of a rapid increase in revenue. In this climate, several commentators have asked “ how ebooks lost their shine”.”
Shipments of e-book readers worldwide from 2008 to 2016
This statistic shows the number of e-book reader shipments worldwide from 2008 to 2012 and also offers a forecast until 2016. In 2009, around 3.8 million e-readers were sold worldwide. In the United States, the revenue from e-books was 158 million U.S. dollars in 2008. In 2010, Amazon’s Kindle accounted for 62.8 percent of all e-reader shipments worldwide.
One of the main problems is that e-reader devices have failed to develop in any major technical form since their introduction in 2008. If you own a Kindle from 2009, you will know that it is almost exactly the same as the current model. In fact, I believe my old Kindle is better, as it came with audio, which has been removed from the current model.
However, few of them offer more than woolly opinions. On the surface, the narrative of the ebook’s demise may appeal to bibliophiles who cherish print – but the reality behind ebooks’ recent plateau is more complex. The Publishing Association’s data is still adjusting to new publishing models. Just as the music industry needed to adapt to the rise of streaming, initiatives such as Amazon Charts are reacting to the rise of ebook subscription services and audio/ebook hybrids that don’t map to traditional metrics of publishing success.
The ‘ebook plateau’ argument also ignores emergent sectors of digital-only sales, including self-publishing, where new genres drive a vibrant and divergent market. Amazon facilitates most self-publishing sales, and the company steadfastly refuses to provide sales data for books published exclusively on the Kindle. So a potential increase in sales for emergent digital-only genres is hidden by the headlines about traditional publishers.
The fall in revenue from ebooks is a direct consequence of legacy publishers’ prioritization of print sales at the expense of digital books. The Kindle’s North American launch in 2007 marketed new ebook titles at $9.99, a discount of at least $10 on the hardback equivalent. This approach was unsustainable, but it set readers’ expectations for the cost of ebooks. Agency ebook pricing has brought ebook prices closer to print, but at the cost of the perceived value of digital publications. As expectations of an ebook’s value were lowered by the initial discounting, the recent resurgence in print sales cannibalizes ebook’s growth.
There have been plenty of discussions around the ‘ebook plateau,’ but the technological challenges for ebooks go under-acknowledged despite their precarity. Both EPUB and the Kindle’s proprietary format are based on 20+ year old technology in an age of rapid technological obsolescence. The recent merger of the Independent Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF, the organization maintaining the EPUB format) and World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) may prove to be a pivotal moment in digital publishing history and poses a significant challenge to the ebook format.
W3C will continue supporting EPUB, but the non-profit is also piloting Portable Web Publications (PWB), a self-described “vision for the future of digital publishing based on a fully native representation of documents within the Open Web Platform.” In other words, PWP moves ebook reading out of dedicated apps and into native web browsers. This has many advantages, but how will books cope in the complex attention of web browsing? Given the scope of the format, digital books will become just another type of publication to use PWP and as a consequence, the standard will not just serve the needs of publishers, a core design element of EPUB despite its limitations.
If PWP supersedes EPUB, Amazon will be the primary company to maintain an ebook format, as it is invested in proprietary specifications and continues to release updates for Kindle Format 8. Amazon’s resistance to EPUB may have been prescient if PWP replaces EPUB as the industry standard, but this relies on Amazon itself maintaining interest in the Kindle. It is still possible to read ebooks on a first-generation Kindle, a feat unthinkable for platforms such as the iPhone or videogame consoles, but elsewhere there is evidence that Amazon’s interests are turning away from books to a range of other ventures not limited to videogame streaming, winning Emmys, grocery shopping, cloud computing, and the Internet of Things. Their tablet line is now just ‘the Fire,’ having dropped the Kindle moniker in 2014. The Kindle brand, and books, are now just one small part of the Amazon juggernaut.
For the moment, reports of the ebook’s death are exaggerated. If the disinterest of Amazon and resistance from the book trade continue, however, there is a chance that the ebook is killed off – in my view, prematurely. Publishers should see ebooks as complementary to print rather than as competition. Letting the ebook die may benefit print sales in the short-term, but the wider transition to digital media consumption presents a longer-term threat. Books need to remain visible and distinct from other genres of writing in the competition for attention. Publishers may wish to build upon the success of ebook/audiobook bundling to build a sustainable future for the ebook.
E-reader Sales Slack as Paper Books Reclaim Market Share
In this piece by Juliana Hill says if you have an e-reader collecting dust on a bookshelf somewhere, forgotten in the same place you’ve had it tucked for the last umpteen months, you’re not alone. Recent data from the Publisher’s Association indicate a major market trend back toward treeware, as ebook and e-reader sales continue to slump from their 2011 peak.
It’s not clear whether the enduring popularity of tablets might be responsible for some of this change; if tablets have usurped some e-reader market share, that could explain things. According to Euromonitor International, a consumer research group, sales of e-readers like the Kindle and the Nook have declined by more than 40 percent since 2011. “E-readers, which was once a promising category, saw its sales peak in 2011. Its success was short-lived, as it spiraled downwards within a year with the entry of tablets,” Euromonitor said in a research note.
But it’s not all about the platform. According to the Publishers Association, sales of consumer ebooks have taken a nosedive in the U.K., falling 17 percent in 2016 alone, while sales of physical books and journals rose by 7 percent. Not to be bested, American e-book sales declined 18.7 percent between Q1 and Q3 of 2016, according to the Association of American Publishers. Paperback sales rose 7.5 percent over those nine months, and hardback sales increased 4.1 percent.
According to a Pew Research Center poll, 65 percent of Americans who responded had read a printed book in the past year; fewer than half that number, 28 percent, reported having read an ebook.
What could be driving this trend? Science has some insights. Studies suggest it’s more difficult to absorb what you read on a glowing rectangle (and even an E Ink screen), as opposed to when you read a book made of paper. This jives with the observation that we tend to skim and scroll when we’re reading online, as the structure of a page chivvies us quickly from one bit of content to the next.
There may also be something important about the physicality of the book itself. Compared with a Kindle, it’s much easier to orient myself in a book. Between the corners of the pages and the physical thickness of the book, I have a sense of where a given bit of text is in the story and in the book.
This may be related to the fundamental structure of the human memory. Champion memorizers have brought into the public consciousness their “method of loci,” also known as the “memory palace” technique. Using this technique, a person can perform truly outstanding feats of memory, like memorizing pi to the 65,536th digit. Key to the idea of the memory palace, though, is the notion of place. When a person is moving through their memory palace, an MRI will show activity in his or her hippocampus, in the same places that we use to remember where we are in space — or perhaps where we are in a book.
According to Wikipedia, there have been several generations of dedicated hardware e-readers. The Rocket eBook was the first commercial e-reader and several others were introduced around 1998, but did not gain widespread acceptance. The establishment of the E Ink Corporation in 1997 led to the development of electronic paper, a technology which allows a display screen to reflect light like ordinary paper without the need for a backlight; electronic paper was incorporated first into the Sony Libre that was released in 2004 and Sony Reader in 2006, followed by the Amazon Kindle, a device which, upon its release in 2007, sold out within five and a half hours. The Kindle includes access to the Kindle Store for e-book sales and delivery.
As of 2009, new marketing models for e-books were being developed and a new generation of reading hardware was produced.