From the Tech Desk
Is It Time to Stick a Fork in the eBook?
“Is the eBook a dead format?”
The Bookseller posed that question in an article published toward the end of July, and they aren’t the only ones asking. It seems bizarre that we are at a point where anyone would even voice the possibility. Not so long ago, the eBook was considered the future of the publishing industry. Now, it’s questionable whether the format has a future at all. What happened? How did publishing get the move to technology so wrong? And what will the fallout mean for the future of the book world?
In this very column, we’ve already addressed some of the factors behind the eBook’s not-so-earthshaking impact. Die-hard readers still love holding physical books in their hands. Many devices that people use as e-readers are not dedicated specifically for that function, meaning that would-be readers get distracted by other activities or entertainment options. Buying a digital copy of a book doesn’t offer much cost savings compared to purchasing the physical copy. Audiobooks have won over a lot of the market that was supposed to go to eBooks, carving out a special niche of users in a way that the eBook format never did.
All these factors help explain why eBook sales dropped by 17% in 2016, according to the Publishing Association Yearbook. However, they also don’t fully discount the benefits that eBooks were supposed to bring to the market—benefits that readers and publishers alike were excited about when the first Kindle hit the market a decade ago this November. For publishers, eBooks would help eliminate production and distribution costs. For readers, eBooks would provide the same one-click purchase convenience that iTunes brought to the music world, along with other benefits like extreme portability and adjustable type settings.
On the contrary, these benefits still exist, and they are perhaps especially important for small independent publishers. Indies with modest budgets and not a lot of money to sink into printing and distribution had new avenues opened for them when the eBook format arrived. The same was true for self-published authors, and the self-publishing market has certainly ballooned over the past 10 years in response to the change. But oversaturation of the eBook marketplace may have killed those advantages for smaller publishers and independent authors, and bigger publishers—who might still stand to benefit from eBooks—seem disinterested in keeping the format on life support.
Why the apathy? The Bookseller piece hits the nail on head by blaming money. Initially, a lot of the excitement about eBooks was due to a lower price point. But publishers don’t want to cannibalize their own market for hardcover books, which means there is rarely much price difference between hardcover and eBook versions. In fact, sometimes, the eBook costs more. At the time of this writing, The Late Show by Michael Connelly is the top book on the New York Times “Hardcover Fiction” best seller list. On Amazon, the hardcover version of the book is a bargain at $12.17. The Kindle version, meanwhile, is priced at $14.99. And while the Connelly book isn’t necessarily the norm, eBook versions rarely offer more than a couple dollars of savings over their hardcover counterparts.
This approach is shortsighted, and Amazon is complicit. The company has gotten so big and grown so many different branches and ventures that Kindles and eBooks are no longer a focus. If eBooks die and the Kindle brand goes the way of the dinosaur, Jeff Bezos, the newly-crowned “richest man in the world,” probably won’t even wince.
At the moment, the publishing industry can afford to take the gamble too, because their customers have shown a willingness to keep buying print books. In the music world, things were different: labels had to adapt to digital or die, thanks to piracy. Since piracy in the book world isn’t anywhere near what it was in the days of Napster, modern publishers don’t face the same ultimatum. So while a record label would have to be delusional to charge the same price for a digital download as for a vinyl album, publishers can get away with the book market equivalent without anyone raising an eyebrow.
The worst part of this apathetic view toward eBooks is that it’s likely to hurt indies and self-published authors far sooner than it will blow up in the faces of the major publishers. Right now, big publishers make more money by emphasizing hardcover books than they save by trimming print and distribution costs with eBooks. They can also target the more casual reading audience—the people who would probably be most attracted to cheaper eBook deals—by pouring more cash into audiobooks. But audiobooks are expensive to produce and can be expensive for consumers, too—at least for customers who like to read more than one book per month. (The standard Audible subscription only allows for one free audiobook each month, and regularly priced audiobooks ain’t cheap.)
Look, the eBook is nobody’s favorite format. eBooks are drab, dull, and unexciting. The technology behind them is dated. There’s nothing inherently thrilling about buying an eBook or holding one in your hands. You can’t display a library of your eBooks in your house. eBook files are all too easy to forget about or lose as you upgrade your devices. And these days, eBooks aren’t even all that affordable. But in order to be ready for the future, the publishing world—particularly the independent subset—needs an electronic format that has nothing to do with audio. Killing the eBook now—or doing nothing as it chokes and dies—might yield boosts for print book sales today, but it’s a decision the publishing world will rue tomorrow. We need to figure out how to update and improve the format so it’s there if and when readers want to go digital.