The e-book in front is a book

Last week in The Bookseller we looked at the paperback market, and how the format might change now that e-books take up a large chunk of sales that would otherwise have been captured by the print book. But the corollary to this is how the e-book will change, as the digital format matures.

The e-book generates upwards of £300m in revenue in the UK, but is dominated by one supplier and one platform. In some ways it is a more diverse and democratic market than the paperback sector, given that its supplier base is much wider than that of traditional publishing (a successful e-book might be published by the giant Penguin Random House, or by an indie writer such as Mark Edwards). But from a reader’s perspective it is a more difficult market to navigate, precisely because professional curation has largely been effaced from the process.

In The Bookseller last week independent bookseller Patrick Neale pointed out that there are more than 2,000 physical spaces where readers hang out: in most of those customers will not emerge with an e-book. We might worry that Amazon dominates this market, but given that so few alternative places actively sell e-books, we can hardly complain when it takes the spoils. Yet, for all that market power, Amazon is no nearer to cracking the code of discoverability than any other digital company, meaning that discovering hidden gems outside of its bestsellers list remains incredibly difficult. Its purchase of Goodreads shows just how important the company regards that development.

In our editorial meetings last week, we talked a lot about how the paperback was hampered by the fact it was generally still subordinate to the hardback, meaning that much of the publicity spend will take place when only the hardback and e-book are available to readers. There was little sense that this was likely to change any time soon, and the paperback’s disadvantage is the e-book’s gain. But actually, this is only true when a paper version is published. In lots of ways, the e-book is actually the format of least support.

While the national media pay attention to hardbacks primarily, and secondarily to paperbacks, e-books barely get a mention. Looking at the most recent reviews pages of the nationals, I could not find one book reviewed that existed only  as an e-book. Certainly, I found no book selected as 'e-book of the week', as happens with paperbacks. If there is a newspaper, or other traditional media outlet, championing the e-book, then I am not aware of it—and neither are my colleagues. Stuart Dredge does a magnificent job of showcasing apps for the Guardian but no such advocate for the e-book exists. The Bookseller is a guilty as everyone else: in the 1970s we launched Paperback Preview to recognise that popular reading had shifted formats, but e-books are given no such room in the magazine (as yet).

There are plenty of good reasons for all this. E-book publishing had largely become a replica business, and in truth there is good money in them there replicas. E-book originals or e-book firsts are still seen as experimental opportunities for new writers, or for backlist that has fallen out of print, or for books not quite big enough to be economical to print. Both Simon & Schuster and William Heinemann announced e-book firsts recently, S&S with publication of Ernest Hemingway’s collected workers digitally, and WM with Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, while today Hodder Children’s Books announced HodderSilver, a digital-only list of classic sci-fi titles.

This is all good work, but for front-list books, publishing’s instinct is to broaden (to publish across multiple formats) not to narrow and focus on one. This leaves the e-book original market (largely) to those who cannot afford, or chose to eschew, paper publication. The e-book might be the heir to the paperback, but if so, I could not identify the Allen Lane. Lane did not just 'invent' a new format, he published into it. 

Perhaps a digital only market is a digital-only opportunity. An eco-system has grown up around e-book publishing (and self-publishing) that functions perfectly well without the intervention of the popular press, or other traditional mediators. The smart e-book publishing, where it exists, is predominantly genre based, and these communities have their own dynamics and ways of talking to each other.

But the feeling remains that the e-book is already being pigeon-holed, under marketed and under-loved by the professionals. History provides a parallel, of course. The paperback is a much bigger market than the hardback yet still lives in its shadow. If the e-book remains just a cheaper facsimile of print books, it will suffer the same fate.

‘How will readers read in the future?’ is the third topic in The Bookseller’s regular Essay competitions, sponsored by the Frankfurt Book Fair. Essays up to 1,000 words in length should be submitted by 23rd May to me at philip.jones@thebookseller.com. The winning essay will be published in The Bookseller, with the writer invited to join the roster of judges for the next competition. The Essay will also be published on the Frankfurt Book Fair blog.

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Comments

Peter vs Paul?

Hi Philip

I enjoyed your article and found it thought provoking. One of the questions it made me ponder is: has the ebook 'revolution' helped the book trade, in terms of revenue growth? By that, I mean are more people actually buying books because of ebooks? Or have ebooks just bitten off a chunk of paperbacks' share of the audience.

I can't help but wonder if Peter has been robbed to pay Paul, or if ebooks have actually encouraged more people to buy more books.

Kind regards

Stephen

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