Another year in the digital age has come and gone, and ebook sales are still growing at "exponential" rates. All indicators would suggest that we've turned a corner and ebooks have been fully embraced by much of the book-consuming public. It's certainly been a banner year for sales, with record ebook and e-reading device sales. According to a Pew study, Christmas 2011 sales of e-readers and tablets almost doubled all of 2010's ownership rates bringing the market penetration to 20%. You don't have to be a genius to realize Christmas 2012 will likely blow that out of the water. But will those sales turn into long-term ebook growth? You can only sell so many e-reading devices, but there's no limit to ebook sales other than reader demand.
One big indicator as to the future health of epublishing growth was that first quarter revenue from adult trade ebook sales, which overtook hardcover sales for the first time ever. But that was just the beginning of a big year for ebookworms everywhere.
Yes, 2012 saw huge e-reading device sales, with Amazon's Kindle and Apple's iPad leap-frogging each other in sales and the ever-expanding line of Kindle options-which conveniently included several new versions just in time for the holiday rush. Kobo and NOOK also had good years, and Barnes & Noble announced it will be bringing the NOOK to Europe. But many of these companies have been expanding into tablet territory, forcing one to wonder if the stand-alone e-reader will become a thing of the past.
Rapid growth aside, ebook publishers have traveled a bumpy road in 2012. The Justice Department's anti-trust suit (plus a similar suit in the European Union) has really put a cramp in publishers' pricing style. Most of the Big Six publishers have either settled or are in the process of settling, but Penguin Group and Macmillan (along with Apple) are scheduled for trial in June 2013. The publishers that have settled are already seeing some of their ebook prices slashed on Amazon, in some cases at what appears to be below-margin prices. One big concern with the settlement, and the entire lawsuit, is that the main result will be an eventual Amazon stranglehold on the ebook marketplace if it continues to sell below cost. And with Amazon's wide range of products, most of which have a much better margin than books traditionally have, Amazon has a cushion to sell ebooks at a loss.
Meanwhile, the ebook self-publishing market has grown steadily as well, with many distributors and publishing companies now offering self-publishing options for writers. One of the main challenges inherent to self-publishing has been marketing and publicity. No one is going to buy your ebook if they don't know about it. In the digital age, though, self-publishers can turn to social media communities to spread the word.
Sites such as Goodreads have taken word-of-mouth buzz into the digital realm. But on the (generally) anonymous web, there will always be bad guys, and 2012 saw a kerfuffle about possibly (and some admittedly) paid-for or sock-puppeted consumer reviews on Goodreads and Amazon. Many authors are hoping that new and emerging sites, such as LibraryThing, are going to become a bigger source of socially interactive ebook review sharing in the future.
And as long as recommendations are getting social, why shouldn't the ebooks? More and more e-readers and tablets offer users the ability to share notes and comments, creating a dialogue around content. Kobo released its Author Notes, which allows for a conversation between reader and author (if either are so inclined).
So, was 2012 the year of the ebook? Or will that title ultimately be reserved for 2013? There's only so much "exponential growth" an emerging industry can sustain, but when and where will sales level off? We'll have to wait and see, but ebooks have energized traditionally flat trade book sales. Impulse buys are far easier with web-based ebook sales, which have the added bonus of instant gratification.
Even as 2012 comes to a close, new questions are popping up. Will Amazon become the Walmart of ebooks, effectively choking out mom-and-pop retailers? Walmart, which decided to stop carrying the Kindle devices, seems to be worried about that possibility. Even if it turns out to be true, it's not going to be in 2013. We're still firmly in the growth period, and I'd say we've got another couple of years before this bubble bursts. Enjoy being able to use the phrase "exponential growth" in reference to the book publishing industry while you can!