All About E-Books: Part 1

This Christmas’ must-have gadget wasn’t an iPad or a new laptop. This was the Christmas of the e-reader; whether a Nook or a Kobo, a Kindle, Sony’s k-less Reader or one of the many lesser-known brands, (Bookeen and Copia anyone?), 2010 was the year when e-readers moved from being a rarely-seen oddity to the mainstream.

It wasn’t really a surprise. In September, Amazon announced that for books that had both paper and digital versions available, the e-book was outselling the paper copy by almost 2 to 1. And like most libraries, we’ve seen the growth in use of our two e-book services, Overdrive and NetLibrary, and learned along with our patrons as e-books were consumed less on computers and more on e-reading devices.

E-books are indeed the way of the future; total book sales increased roughly 4% last year but sales of e-books rose 160%. Though that still only puts e-books at about 10% of total book sales, that is up from around 3% the year before. While claims of the end of paper books is as ridiculous as claims in the 80s of computers creating a paperless office , it is clear that e-books are very, very popular.

The pace of this increase in popularity has taken the book industry by surprise and everyone, including book publishers and libraries, is still trying to figure out what’s next for e-books.

There’s no denying the many benefits of e-books; access to hundreds of books wherever you want them all weighing less than a paperback and able to fit into a pocket or purse, the environmental benefits, (studies show it takes reading around 20 e-books to offset the environmental cost of producing an e-reader), and down the road what should be significantly lower prices for e-books compared to paper copies. For book publishers, the elimination of the high shipping costs of books and the fact that the incremental cost to produce one copy or 1000 is pennies, means they will be very actively figuring out ways to make e-books even more popular.

And there are many things to still be figured out; the music and movie industries have had to wrestle with new technology and now it’s the publishing industry’s turn. This includes dealing with piracy – the unauthorized sharing of e-books without payment – and digital rights.

For example, Harper Collins recently announced that e-books loaned from libraries would deactivate after 26 loans, forcing the library to buy another copy. The decision is ridiculous to libraries who exist to serve the public, but makes perfect sense for a for-profit company. No other publishers have followed suit yet and Harper Collins has admitted that it is willing to discuss alternatives with libraries, showing just how unsure they are of the impact of their decision.

We’ve already seen debates about pricing; Amazon wanted to impose prices for e-books before agreeing to let publishers set their own prices. Publishers claim long lists of costs associated with the production of e-books but the fact is that once the basic production and marketing costs are covered, even an e-book sold at $0.99 is almost 100% profit, meaning that publishers will be driving the move to e-books as much as anyone.

E-Books are definitely here to stay. But in what form?

In Part 2 we’ll talk about what e-books could mean for the book format; once a book doesn’t have to be a bunch of paper between two covers, what does it become?

– PA

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