The State of Ebooks


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Article ImageIt's hard to imagine a more eventful year for the ebook industry than 2013. From a guilty verdict in the Apple antitrust suit to a reported slowdown in the growth of the ebook market, there's been no shortage of news. Amazon and Apple both floated the idea of selling used digital books, and the self-publishing movement continued to gain steam thanks to ebooks. And this was all before the holiday sales rush that inevitably puts more e-readers into the hands of more consumers.

"The great power of the ebook in today's world is that it really does open up the printing press to anybody," says John Kremer, author of 1001 Ways to Market Your Books. But as hot as the market is, traditional publishers continue to have a troubled relationship with the format. There may be signs, though, that change is on the horizon as some publishers continue to experiment with new distribution methods, marketing strategies, and more.

THE YEAR IN REVIEW

"The biggest ebook story of 2013 was the riveting ebook price-fixing trial in Manhattan, the results of which we're seeing in ebook pricing today," says Jeremy Greenfield, editorial director of Digital Book World. "It looks like giving retailers control of pricing over ebooks has resulted in lower prices for some ebooks. Just look at the Digital Book World Ebook Best-Seller list-in November 2013, the average price of a best-selling ebook is about $6.50; last fall, it was nearly double."

Late in 2013-with Apple still licking its wounds from the guilty verdict in the aforementioned antitrust case-Book Industry Study Group (BISG) reported that the once explosive growth in the ebook market had leveled off. "Now a normal means of consuming content and offering consumers a broad range of reading options, e-book growth has slowed and currently comprises about 30% of books sold," the report says. In other words, the early adopters were tapped out, and publishers were going to have to start reaching new-more traditional-consumers if they wanted to see continued growth. Of course, not every publisher saw the slowing ebook sales as a bad thing. Some told Publishers Weekly that it was a "mixed blessing," lamenting the loss of an explosive growth area, but welcoming the stability it brings to an industry constantly in flux.

But the BISG report also finds that 48% of respondents were willing to pay more for print and digital bundles, and more than half of those surveyed would pay more for ebooks that could be resold. Amazon, apparently, was a bit ahead of the curve on that first issue. The company announced a new program called Kindle MatchBook in October that would allow its customers to download free or inexpensive digital versions of books they had already bought in hard copy-and it would offer the same deal to readers going forward. When it comes to reselling ebooks, though, Amazon and Apple are both trying to figure out just how that will work, as the companies filed for patents that would allow them to do so.

Several sources also indicated that self-publishing continues to flourish in the digital environment. The BISG report says, "Consumers do not distinguish between e-books published by traditional houses and independently published options when making buying decisions." This wasn't a big surprise, as Bowker's analysis of ISBN information reveals that self-published titles jumped 59% from 2011 to 2012, and 40% of those were ebooks.

There were, however, a few surprises in the self-publishing realm. Established authors, such as Guy Kawasaki, continued to move away from publishing houses and turned to self-publishing. And some authors decided to make sure there was an audience for their books before they even wrote them via crowdfunding. Kremer notes this trend. "In order to promote through crowdfunding, you have to go to the same audience that you would sell the book to in the end," he says. "You're essentially preselling the book."

Some big publishers even took a cue from the do-it-yourself (DIY) ethic of self-publishers (and perhaps from the success of J.K. Rowling's Pottermore). HarperCollins Publishers, for instance, decided to start selling ebooks straight to consumers from its website. Starting with a popular backlist author, C.S. Lewis, the publisher began selling ebooks from cslewis.com and narnia.com.

With such an eventful year behind us, it's hard to see what could be down the road for ebooks.

A LOOK AHEAD

Greenfield says not to look for a permanent slowdown in ebook growth in 2014 and beyond. "I don't think this is a trend that will continue indefinitely," he says. "I think as more people buy tablets, smartphones, and e-readers-and more children grow up with digital reading as a normal part of their lives-ebooks will continue to gain market share."

And while some might dismiss traditional publishers' commitment to ebooks, Greenfield scoffs at the idea: "Publishers are heavily invested in ebooks and have been for years. They have revamped their entire companies-from acquisition to production to sales and marketing-around the rise of ebooks."

He also expects that publishers will continue to use ebooks as a format for experimentation. "Publishers are and have been experimenting with everything related to digital publishing for years. From Scholastic to Penguin Random House to Sourcebooks and many others-publishers are very much leading the way in experimenting with ebook formats, digital distribution and more," he says.

Still, many have complained that some publishers haven't taken full advantage of all that ebooks have to offer and that publishers do little more than take the printed version and convert it to digital text. So Greenfield says to keep an eye on publishers that have made the investment in enhanced ebooks that take advantage of all that the digital format has to offer. This could be the year that they really take off.

He also asks, "Will Barnes & Noble be able to turn its Nook business around? How will Amazon further integrate its Goodreads acquisition? Will Apple continue to make ebook market share gains? How will indie bookstores fare?"

Answers to some of those questions started to emerge at the end of 2013 as Amazon announced Goodreads' integration with the Kindle Paperwhite that "brings together the world's largest e-reading community and the world's largest community of book lovers." Amazon also announced that it would allow independent bookstores to sell Kindles and receive a percentage of all ebook purchases made through those devices.

One thing is for certain: Don't expect to see a slowdown in ebook-related news in 2014.