January 20, 2015

#Ebook stagnation — my thoughts on why

Note that in the US, the reading rate has plateaued even more than the buy rate.
Both in Australia and the UK, and here in the US, ebook sales have stagnated in the past year or two.

Is this a temporary glitch, and will ebook touters from a few years back eventually be proven right, or — at least in the current sales structure of ebooks — is it something permanent?

Before answering those questions, let's look at why the stagnation has happened.

I have several thoughts.

1. Early adopters have all done their early adopting, and middle adopters haven't jumped in yet; late adopters certainly haven't.

2. Ebook buyers from Amazon have pulled back from buying ebooks, with the lapse of "teaser" prices now having used books, after just 2 years, cheaper than ebook copies of the same, and often even new ebooks not that much cheaper than print.

3. Ebook buyers — or even more would-be ebook buyers — don't like their book choices being held hostage to wholesaling disputes like the Amazon-Hachette one.

4. Ebook readers — and even more, potential ebook readers — have grown wary of the fact that, at least in the US, one does not own ebooks. Rather, one owns the right to read an ebook stored by Amazon or whomever in a digital cloud, a right that can be, and has been, revoked.

5. Print readers are still holding out for more ease with the digital equivalent of underlining and otherwise marking up a book. (But, see No. 5.) Ditto for other issues related to this.

6. Ebook readers, in nonfiction, have gotten tired of problems with footnoting, indexes, etc.

If No. 1 is the primary issue, then, the plateau is only temporary. That's somewhat true if No. 6 is the primary issue, though that still has a trust issue involved.

If some combination of Nos. 2-5 is the problem, though, then the plateau is going to be around a while.

That's because all of the problems there, and subproblems within each point, are traceable in part to quasi-monopolistic issues in general, and business practices of Amazon in particular. And, even No. 6 in part relates to that — it's an issue of buyers tired of vendors in general being cheap with ebook production. (That said, that is probably more then publishing houses than Amazon, but, if Amazon really cared about the issue, it would lean on publishers to do better on their end. In nonfiction, if a book has at least 10 Amazon reviews, I generally offer 50-50 odds that one of the reviews is a complaint about ebook formatting issues.)

To me, No. 2 probably is not that big, though it's not negligible.

I think Nos. 3 and 4 are the biggies. Especially to people who don't have fondness for Bezos otherwise, on things like Amazon's sweatshop "fulfillment warehouses," Bezos looks like a potential John D. Rockefeller of digital publishing. Or worse.

For me, these two issues, plus the degree that No. 5 relates to No. 4, make me wary indeed of, if not ebooks in general, then the Amazon and Kindle world in specific.

Given that Bezos is showing ever more signs of turning the Washington Post into the nation's libertarian newspaper in five years (what — the Wall Street Journal isn't enough? let alone the Phil Anschutz "empire"?) I don't think Nos. 3 and 4 are changing any time soon.

I don't know if Amazon is as much a problem Down Under or in the UK. Maybe it is, and given that that US survey is from 2013, it just took Amazon wariness — and Amazon hamhandedness or worse that provoked it —an additional year to spread beyond the US.

No comments: