“How big will ebooks get?” A lot hangs on that question. Right now ebooks represent perhaps 7% of the total book market. A world where they rise to 20% or 25% and stop rising differs substantially from one where they rise to 50%, 70% or 90%.
Without arguing the point, I see a 20% market as one in which bookstores continue to survive in significant numbers, publishers continue to have an important role in the book world, and public libraries mostly carry on as usual. At some higher level I see most bookstores vanish, non-academic publishers largely disintermediated away, and public libraries in crisis. (For libraries see my posts on ebooks in libraries.)
Feedback loops. My contention is that ebooks rise far above 20%, becoming the dominant book format, because the logic of ebook success has built-in feedback loops. You can call it “success breeds success” or “vicious cycles” as you like. Same idea.
I’ve never seen someone lay out ebook feedback loops in detail, and I’ve recently run many people who seem to think ebooks will “stall out,” so here’s my attempt at articulating the logic as I see it:
- Ebooks win on convenience above all; you can download something and start reading it immediately. Bookstores win on browsing and socializing. As ebooks cannibalize print sales, booksellers will go out of business, making paper books increasingly hard to find, and therefore less convenient, harder to browse and less socially rewarding (see also 7). Ebooks kill bookstores and dead bookstores drive ebooks–a classic feedback loop.
- Paper books depend upon economies of scale. As you print and distribute more books the cost per book goes down rapidly. The physical-book industry depends upon these economies. But when scale shrinks, everything runs in reverse. As ebooks take off paper-book costs will rise, making them relatively more expensive (3), and others will become unprofitable, eliminating the choice altogether (4).
- Ebooks are already cheaper than printed books, and bound to get cheaper still. If popular print books are cheap because the marginal costs are low, digital books have no marginal costs. They’re not free to produce; even apart from money to the author and publisher there is a substantial cost associated with preparing the digital file. That cost is “baked into” the ebook price. But it’s a fixed price, divided over the total number of copies sold. As volume increases that price will be spread out further.
- As books drop out of print, ereaders become a necessity. Ereaders today are a choice. Some prefer them, but nobody needs one. As books drop out of paper, ereaders will become necessary for people who don’t want to be constrained in their purchases. This will drive device adoption and therefore ebook purchases (5).
- As ereaders proliferate, ereading does too. eBooks suffer from a relatively high initial cost, but ebooks are generally cheaper. Once a consumer gets over that cost and has an ereader all subsequent book-buying decisions are influenced by that sunk cost.
- Ereaders become more powerful as you buy more books. First, on a personal level, there is a big difference between a device that has a few books you bought since Christmas and a device that has everything you’ve read since high-school–all in in one place and searchable. Right now most ebook people people have the former. Soon they will have the latter.
- Second, we will soon discover that ereaders are a networked good, like the telephone or the internet. As more people use them, they become better. Ebook “sharing” features are intentionally crippled, but they gain in value as more of your friends and family have the devices. The same applies to the possibilities for “social reading.” We have only begun to explore this, but, as LibraryThing and its immitators have shown, social reading shows great promise. It will be even more valuable when fully integrated into the book.
- As ebooks take off, we will figure out what they’re good for. Five hundred years of development have shown us what paper books are good for, but we’re still learning about ebooks. As ebooks become a larger share of the book market ebook-only advances will become worth pursuing. “Enhanced Ebooks,” like The Elements, will be part of the answer. But I suspect the real gain will come in genres that didn’t work as well in print. Nothing about short stories or poems requires they be bound together into anthologies or sold in tiny and expensive editions. The economics of print did that. Ebooks will change the market logic, and then change expectations. I don’t see someone accustomed to buying short stories on their Kindle reverting to the print-book model of buying anthologies.
- Right now–and I believe for a long time–ebook success accrues to a small number of companies, with Amazon in the lead. Concentrated power of this sort is bad news for publishers struggling to retain high ebook prices. Last year, MacMillan could afford to lose all Amazon sales for a time in order to put presure on Amazon’s pricing model. As eBooks rise, Amazon’s share of the book market will only increase. This would be true of ebooks even if the death of physical bookstores didn’t give Amazon a larger and larger share of physical book sales. A rising share is not going to make it easy for publishers to keep pricing power, and thus delay ebook adoption.
Any I’ve missed?