Peak ebook?

I’ve been documenting the recent, surprisingly sharp decline in ebook sales growth. The falloff has continued through the first half of this year, with ebooks now showing clear signs of “stagnating” at about 25 percent of the overall U.S. book market, according to Digital Book World: “Once thought destined to reach 50% or 80% of all book buying and reading in the U.S., ebooks have stalled out on their way up to higher altitude.”

DBW bases that conclusion on a new study by the Book Industry Study Group, a publishing trade association, which uses data from Nielsen Book Research. The study shows that “for the past year or so, the share of all new ebooks sold — both in units and dollars — has been flat at about 30% and just under 15%, respectively.” A DBW chart drawn from the Nielsen numbers indicates that e-books actually lost some market share during the second quarter of this year (a trend also seen in recent sales reports from the Association of American Publishers):



The Nielsen data also reveals “a slow decline in the number of people who exclusively buy e-books.” Comments Nielsen’s Jo Henry: “It is clear from four annual research surveys that e-books are in the later stages of the innovation curve and have settled into reasonably predictable consumption patterns.”

Maybe this is just an anomaly and ebooks will eventually gain a second wind and start taking more share from printed books. Right now, though, it’s looking as though there’s a Gutenberg Firewall — and that ebooks have hit it.

16 thoughts on “Peak ebook?

  1. Tom Slee

    A useful reminder. There are obvious benefits to them — portability, and the ability to change font size for us wrinklies. If I had to guess, I’d say that to gain a second wind ebooks must overcome some of the limitations that become obvious once you start to use them. Difficulty in flipping back and forth is probably the biggest, where “flipping back and forth” is that thing you do when you think “I’ve met this character before – but where?” or “This bit here is referring to a scene I skipped over. Where is it?”

    I don’t know what makes ebooks so bad at this but if I had to phrase it in computerese I suspect I’d say there is no way to do a quick binary search for a piece of text. Can I have my million dollars now?

  2. Nick Post author

    Tom: Yes, I think we’re discovering that simulating a page of a book is very different from simulating a book. The bulk of a book, which many assumed to be a bug, turns out, in a lot of cases, to be a feature.

  3. Nick Post author

    Abid: I think the rise of the multifunction tablet in place of the single-function e-reader is one of the reasons behind the dampened demand for ebooks.

  4. Tom Slee

    I can see tablets hitting the demand for dedicated ebook readers, but why would it affect the demand for ebooks themselves? I would have thought it would increase that, if anything.

  5. Nick Post author

    Here is my theory: “The shift from e-readers to tablets is putting a damper on e-book sales. With dedicated readers, pretty much the only thing you can do is buy and read books. With tablets, you have a whole lot of other options. (To put it another way: On an e-reader, the e-reading app is always running. On a tablet, it isn’t.)”

    Give a man a simple jackknife, and he’ll whittle. Give him a swiss-army knife, and he’ll open beer bottles and file his nails.

  6. Eric

    I agree with the points made on the lists from your earlier postings about why e-readers are following short of expectations. Your point about the swiss-army-knife tablet merits further exploration. Since the implementation of RSS and Atom feeds, my consumption of printed and digital magazines and books has dropped precipitously. I don’t spend much time on social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Google +, however I imagine the numerous postings containing embedded links to (free) short and lengthy web articles and posts contribute to abating the demand for printed material.

  7. Laraine

    This difficulty is, indeed, maddening in e-books–“Difficulty in flipping back and forth.” And many of the things that the reader wants to locate, say a particular passage about mountains that was especially evocative or symbolic, aren’t available through specific search terms.

    But may I also add that lots of people who read a good deal want to annotate the pages and those little pop up note-taking boxes in e-books just do not cut it.

    What I wonder is if these two difficulties are linked to e-books that mimic print books but can be avoided by other more innovative methods of reading on the screen. In a Scientific American article comparing paper books and screens, Ferris Jabr mentioned a South Korean company called KAIST that is developing a different type of interface that allows the reader to see the pages that came before and those that come after the current one (not that I understand how that’s possible, but that’s what he says I swear).

  8. Laraine

    The “difficulty in flipping back and forth” mentioned above is one reason I buy more print books than I did when e-readers and e-books first appeared on the scene. Many of the things that I want to locate, say a particular passage about mountains that was especially evocative or symbolic, aren’t available through specific search terms.

    People who read a good deal also frequently like to annotate pages and those little pop up note-taking boxes in e-books just do not cut it.

    Perhaps these two difficulties, linked to e-books that mimic print books, can be avoided by other methods of reading on the screen that are less bookish. Not that I know what they are. But Ferris Jabr in a Scientific American article called “The Reading Brain in the Digital Age” mentioned a couple of different alternatives, so he seems to think they exist.

  9. Brad

    I think the important thing to understand is that the 25% figure represents an expressed preference. How can we know what percentage of traditional book buyers are expressing a preference?

  10. MT

    Nick, I think your hypothesis is a good one … but I’d also throw in the visual cue that a book cover (or magazine cover) provides for one’s attention. I noticed this when I shifted a magazine to electronic-reading only. Without the cover facing me from the pile of mail each week, I forgot about it, and even those little pop-ups on my tablet weren’t sufficient to remind me that it was there. Never judge a book by its cover, but never underestimate the role of that cover, either.

  11. Tom Tulliver

    If ‘they’ wish to sell (really lease) more ebooks there’s a very simple solution: lower the price.

    At least a dozen times in the past few months I’ve taken the time to search a book in iBooks only to find the price a few dollars less than the physical counterpart on Amazon or Chapters/Indigo. I always opt for the free sample and then plan on ordering the physical book at a later time.

    If ‘they’ want me to convert my dozens of sample downloads to purchases then the price difference between the physical and electronic has to dramatically increase. For example, I wouldn’t blink for a second over a $5 ebook. I’d purchase many on shear impulse. But $17 for an ebook I can get on sale in hardcover for $19? Forget it.

    Change the pricing and ebook sales will soar.

  12. Edward

    I don’t see why Tablet sales would hurt sales of ebooks. Readers, yes. but tablets are simply another medium for reading ebooks.

  13. Malcolm

    Part of the issue to may be that ebooks are poorly designed and executed (this is addition to the ‘flipping back and forth’ issue discussed in the earlier comments). I’ve been very amazed at the poor quality of ebook design and format. It’s often very shoddy work along with wretched typography.

    I have one book (history) that has maps–which is great. Unfortunately, the maps always display at right angles to the way you hold the reader. When you rotate the reader 90 degrees to correct for the, the map shifts too to remain oriented the wrong way.

    The whole ebook production seems cheap and like an afterthought. That doesn’t help encourage adoption.

    But hey, maybe it’s a conspiracy on the part of publishers to defeat ebooks ;-)

  14. Kevin

    I think your swiss army knife example is right on, but may have a twist to it. Plenty of other comments mention how ebook design still feels bit off. With the introduction of more multifunction tablets, do you think this may have contributed to a slowdown in changes to how ebooks are made? Since a lot of companies have switched their focus from ebooks to apps, it may have split the attention tech companies have spent on making ebooks better.

  15. Lori Sprunk

    I don’t have an e-reader. I only buy e-books that are not available in print. Why?? Because I can’t buy a Kindle and read a NOOK book. I can’t loan the book I BUY to whomever I want for as long as I want. I DON’T OWN THE BOOK. I have many friends who use the Nooks and Kindles now for Facebook games and music more than reading. Why??? Because there is no uniformity or standardization. If they want us to buy e-books, then they need to SELL the book that we can read anywhere we want on any device we want. They charge just as much for the e-book as the hardback or paperback. Where is the advantage?

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