I like books. That’s no secret. As I’ve said many times, I like real books. Paper ones that I can hold in my hand, store on my bookshelves, and read anytime I want without plugging them in. That said, for better or for worse, there is a revolution coming.
It’s still early in the life of eBooks and eReader devices, and it is entirely possible that this is a bubble. It’s also entirely possible that eBooks are the future. The growth in eBook popularity doesn’t lie. It took Amazon just four years of selling their Kindle eReaders for their digital sales to surpass their print sales. And just a few days ago, at an investor meeting, Barnes & Noble made some lofty predictions about their share of the digital book market. While eBook sales accounted for around $250 million of their revenue last year, their current projections are putting eBook sales at more than $2 billion by 2015.
Now, in business, projections—particularly when stated to investors—are usually nothing more than pure guesses or best hopes. However, some figures are hard to ignore. Recently, publisher Hachette Book Group announced that their eBook sales were up 134% from 2010. According to the company, eBooks now represent 21% of their net sales. In October, the American Association of Publishers released sales figures for paper books, which were down significantly. One of the hardest hit areas was adult mass market books (the small paperbacks you most often find in the supermarket checkout line), which saw a 36% decrease in sales. Conversely, downloaded audio books were up 30% and downloaded eBooks were up 117%.
There is a simple reason for this: People gravitate to what ever is easiest. It’s not necessarily a case of laziness either. People are busy, and after working all day, taking the kids to their sporting events, getting dinner ready, etc., shopping in a bookstore for something to read doesn’t always sound fun. They have to leave the house, drive to the bookstore, stand and shop, stand in line to pay, then drive home. With an eReader, they can stay home, get the kids in bed, sit down in their chair, and within minutes, find something good to read. The downloads come fast, and it’s cheaper than going to the bookstore.
From the business side of things, eBooks make a lot of since, too. When a publisher decides to publish an author’s work, they are taking a huge financial risk. They have to buy the rights to the book (in some cases, they have to pay the author an advance, too). They have to pay an editor to get the book ready for print. They have to pay a designer to lay the book out for print. Then they have to pay another designer to come up with a cover for the book. Now, all of this is true when publishing an eBook as well, but what differs is that, for an eBook, their expenses largely end here. For a print book, they still have to pay a printer to print and bind the books. Then they have to pay their salespeople to talk retailers and libraries into buying copies of the book. Then they have to pay to ship (heavy, expensive) boxes of books to those stores and libraries. All of this expense comes before even one copy is sold. It’s a huge risk, and in today’s digital world, it’s an outmoded business model. Digital is cheaper to produce, there’s no shipping, and if it doesn’t sell well, there’s no inventory clogging up warehouse shelves.
As of now, the future of printed books is unclear. I certainly hope that eBooks aren’t the death of print books, but one thing is clear, we will see a lot more eBooks published in the coming years. And with that, we will see more bookstores close, as illustrated by the recent Borders closings. The writing is on the wall, and in big block letters: THE REVOLUTION IS COMING.
This particular revolution is shaping up a lot like the iTunes/iPod music revolution did. With the iPod, there was some initial hesitation from people over buying a device to listen to their music, but as prices of iPods and other MP3 players fell, more and more people joined the revolution. People embraced the revolution because it meant they had access to a bigger selection of music, at much lower prices. Bands embraced the revolution because it allowed them to have more control over their music, and to see more of the profits from the music they created. Additionally, music listeners were no longer limited to the bands on the record store shelf. The revolution allowed smaller bands from around the world—bands who had never been signed by a record label—to produce their own albums and make them available to anyone in the world. The Internet allowed them to market their music, and iTunes allowed them to sell it to a huge potential audience. And when music listeners could download an unknown band’s album for $10, instead of buying an $18 CD in the store, they were more willing to take a shot on the new band.
Another, and more recent analogous of this type of revolution is the Blockbuster Video/Netflix revolution. It used to be that when you wanted to watch a movie that you didn’t own a copy of, you’d go down to the video store and rent one. Much like shopping for a new book, it was somewhat inconvenient, but it was the only way to rent a movie. Then came a company called Netflix (though previous variations such as the failed DivX rental system had attempted to revolutionize the industry, Netflix was the first to suceed). Neflix eliminated the trips to the video store by having DVDs come straight to your mailbox. It took Blockbuster a long time to join the revolution, but once they did, movies by mail became the norm. That is, until Neflix found a way to eliminate trips to the end of your driveway to get a DVD. Streaming, on-demand movies are now the norm. For a reasonable monthly fee, you’re free to watch all the movies and TV shows you want without even getting off the sofa.
eBooks offer the same conveniences for the consumer. And like the digital music industry, eBooks offer greater conveniences to the content creators. There is a common view of book authors as rock stars in their own right. Many people assume that published writers are rich and famous. This is usually not the case. Their publishers make the most money, and the writer gets what’s leftover. This is somewhat fair, since the publisher is taking the financial risk. However, the new digital book world shifts this paradigm. Now, for a minimal financial risk (typically around a few hundred dollars), a writer can publish and distribute their own eBook, and keep all of the profits from it.
Self-publishing is by no means a new idea. Many well-known books were originally self-published (Chicken Soup for the Soul, The Joy of Cooking, The Elements of Style, and many, many more). What has changed with eBooks is the distribution of self-published books. Typically, when self-publishing a print book, it was incredibly difficult for an author to get their book onto store shelves. With big box bookstores like Borders and Barnes & Noble eliminating the small, interdependent booksellers across the country, authors were at the mercy of corporate policies. To be fair, Barnes & Noble has long had a program in place where they carry self-published authors in local stores, but it is still difficult for authors to get their books in stores not in their local markets. eBooks solve the problem of geography. Once your eBook is available in major eBook stores like Amazon and Barnes & Noble (which is much easier to do than getting a print book on a store shelf), it is immediately available to anyone with an eReader or eReading app on their smartphone or tablet computer. The only obstacle remaining for the author is marketing and publicity, a problem authors have in any kind of publishing. (Another misconception of the published writer is that their publisher markets their book, this is not always the case, and most published authors receive very little publicity from their publisher.) Digital self-publishing would probably die there, suffering the same hurdles as self-publishing a print book, if not for one very important thing: Social media.
It has never been easier for a self-published author to gain an online fan base than it is right now. A writer can build a following on sites like Twitter, Facebook, LiveJournal, and Google+ even before they’ve written their book. Then, when the book is done, they can tell hundreds, if not thousands, of people about it with the push of a button. The best part is, they can provide a link in their posts making it even easier for anyone to purchase their eBook. Pricing is another big advantage. Since the author will keep most of the sale price of their eBook, and because they don’t have printing costs to recoup, they can price it much lower than they could a print book. If an eBook is under $5, it stands to reason that more people will be willing to take a chance on an unknown author. Conversely, a self-published author selling a traditional paperback book in a store may have to charge upwards of $20 (when a typical paperback is $14) in order to make the production of the book financially possible. Few people will take a $20 chance on reading a book from an unknown author, but the odds of someone spending $3 or $4 dollars on an eBook that sounds interesting are a lot higher.
So, it is with a certain amount of reluctance that I accept this coming revolution. As much as I love paper books, the advantages of eBooks are clear. I hope libraries never go away. I hope I’ll always be able to browse the selves of a real bookstore. I hope that the library of books in my home doesn’t someday look like a museum instead of an actual library. But I also hope that the eBook revolution turns many more people onto reading, empowers more writers to share what they create, and helps those who already love to read to find even more great books to read. If those things happen, then this will be a revolution worth embracing.