Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Catching the digital wave


Digital book sales, aka e-books, continue to soar.

According to the AP and other news reports, Random House has announced that they are digitizing thousands of additional books. Excerpts will be available online.

This move comes in the wake of the explosive growth of Amazon.com's Kindle reader, which Oprah put on the map. I haven't tried the Kindle yet, but if I'm lucky, maybe I'll wind up on Santa's list for it this year.

In general, it sounds like the heads of the book publishing industry must read the pixels on the wall and embrace ebooks, or risk becoming that industry's next version of Detroit's Big Three.

Of course, buried in the recent news reports about rise of e-books was the caveat that digital book sales represent only a thin slice of publishing's pumpkin pie--estimated to be about one percent. But I'm old enough to remember when Japanese car makers had only a small piece of the American automobile market. Today, they're cleaning our clock.

I do love the idea of being able to sample book excerpts and audio books online. That's a powerful "sales lead-in" that's going to encourage hard-core hardback book readers like me to jump aboard the e-book wagon.

I think it's time for all of us to stop mourning the nongrowth of paper book sales, and celebrate the new digital age. It's the future. Let's embrace it. For example, last week when I posted, I was freaking out about the changes in the industry. This week, I have decided to reframe my thoughts about the book publishing crisis, and seek out the hidden opportunities in those changes.

Because ready or not, the digital era is here.

So what about you? Are e-books in your library yet? Have you asked Santa for a Kindle?

Update: Speaking of changes in the industry--in the comments, Joe alerted us to the fact that Houghton Mifflin has told its editors to stop acquiring manuscripts. Here's a link to the article.

15 comments:

  1. Kathryn, your post is very timely. Every day I read about another downsizing or negative coming out of the publishing industry. Just yesterday, it was reported that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has stopped acquiring manuscripts. I expect more bad news of this type as publishers approach the edge of the abyss. Ebooks may provide the thin silver lining on some very dark storm clouds if for no other reason than the fact that they cost practically nothing to produce. Although they only represent a small portion of sales, as you pointed out, they are growing in interest and popularity with younger readers. Personally, I’d like to see more publishers giving ebooks away during launch periods to entice interest. Previewing a large enough portion of a book to get the reader to buy it makes sense to me. And it could also build interest in readers seeking out other works by a particular author. I think the bottom line is that publishers and writers must come up with new and innovative ways to get their work into the marketplace. Ebooks must be considered in the mix of opportunities.

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  2. I hadn't heard that about Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Joe! I think there's definitely a huge opportunity for publishers in the digital area. Like the old saying, "In every crisis, there is a hidden opportunity." I think publishers need to turn to the people in their ranks who have lots of web savvy, and recruit more of them in their marketing areas. I think marketing is key in this area--it will require a seismic shift in thinking in the way books are promoted and, ultimately, distributed.

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  3. Here a link to the PW article:

    http://www.publishersweekly.com/article/CA6617241.html

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  4. Thanks for the link, Joe! Very scary article. This type of news underscores the need to explore the segments of the market that have proven to have high growth potential, like digital publishing.

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  5. I don't have a Kindle, or any e-books. (I have downloaded some of John McFetridge's short fiction, but to my hard drive. he was giving it away, like a drug dealer. Get 'em hooked, then charge for it.)

    I know my time is drawing to a close, but I like books. I like holding them. I like dogearing the pages I'll want to refer back to. I like how they smell. (Except for old ones that were wet at one time.) I'm old. I'm crabby. I think that everything that needs to change should have changed already, when I was willing to learn a different way of doing something every ^&#*(@^ week.

    And yes, I appreciate the irony of commenting on something I read eonline throuhg electronic means.

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  6. I'm happy to see the digital age embraced, though I have no desire to say goodbye to my paperbacks. So I'm one of those that wants it all. An inexpensive option for an ebook reader, the Kindle is still waaaay above Santa's budget, and paperbacks that I can snuggle in front of the fire with and have that tactile sensation of the experience of reading. That's just me...demanding.

    ~J

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  7. Although it's not the final answer by any means, think of how many people are walking around with a Blackberry or other PDA. They've come to rely upon these devices as much as wearing a watch on their arm. Seems to me there's an opportunity there to market ebooks in some way. After all, the numbers are staggering.

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  8. LOL, Dana! I'm crabby too. But my eyes don't adjust to the teeny print on some paperbacks, so I'm always grateful to be able to increase the text size on a screen.
    JSB, I'm also hoping that the price of the Kindle will come down. Maybe some smart competitor will move in on the biz. Could an iBook reader and iBooks be in our future?

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  9. Very timely post indeed and I don't think it's too scary - although I love the feel of having a real paper book in my hand. I think samples are great online and would love to have mine available on my website that way. I also had the experience of desperately wanting a book that my local independent store had just run out of (argh!) - if I had an ebook reader I could have downloaded it then and there rather than waiting a whole week for it to come in!

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  10. Personally, I think there will always be a place for paper books, but I know there are "new wave" junkies out there who demand newer-and-better every year. They can have a Kindle, and read to their heart's content, and it won't bother me a bit. I think it just adds variety for a melting pot of people who constantly crave choice anyway. So, her's another choice, and some of us will embrace it and others will be thankful for every hardcover we can add to our shelf.

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  11. True, Jake. My friends who have moved wholeheartedly over to digital books are the ones who are "early adopters" of all the bells and whistles of technology. They're the ones who are usually carrying an iPhone, for example. But most people I know still read the old-fashioned way. It'll be interesting to see where everyone's at ten years from now...

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  12. If e-books really hit big, what will that do for the self publishing industry? Will there suddenly be a huge plethora of authors who put their own stuff out there for anyone to grab? Or will Kindle (or maybe they already do) proprietize the format of what their device can read so the average person at home can't just write something and sell it from their own website?

    Hmmm...could it be that's what is making the big names wait and see? They're afraid they'll lose their market share to Adobe Acrobat.

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  13. Basil, I think you're right in that there will be a struggle over all of these digital distribution rights. I just cruised over to Amazon and read that the Kindle is currently sold out due to "huge demand", btw!

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  14. Maybe it's because I'm a dreamy-eyed bookseller, but I think there will always be a place for paper books. If nothing else, they're recycle-able, and they don't cost a fortune to replace when you drop one in the tub.

    But for the younger folks who are wired in, and for travelers who want lots of books in a small space, electronic books are where it's at.

    I don't know how specialty shops like ours will survive, but we're going to keep at it as long as we can.

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  15. I think that you're right on target for the future by being a specialty book store, Fran! Readers will always want to browse the stacks of a place that has a well-selected collection of books oriented toward their interest. And there's no reason why book stores can't have "audio clips" of books available for sampling, much like music stores do today. Such a facility will exponentially expand the titles that you can provide to your customers, I would think. Thanks for stopping by!

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