Mike Stackpole is a former author of mine and remains a good friend. If you want to stay on top of the future of publishing from the author’s standpoint (my perspective is the publisher’s, though I’ve sold enough anthologized fiction to marvel at royalty statements and grrr at their Hollywoodesque “reserve for returns”), you’d better be reading this smart guy’s ever-unfolding blog. (Here’s the entry in which he receives his iPad.) Mike pointed me to a statement from the e-reading guru at Sony, Steve Haber, who says e-books will overtake print books within five years. Read the piece and get back to me. I’ll wait.
Sony – a company which distributes music (Columbia Records) and movies (Columbia Pictures, no relation except the corporate one) – has a traumatic lineage which we probably should respect. After all, most of its businesses, which used to be huge cash cows before everything went digital, are getting pirated six ways from Sunday. Its Sony E-Reader deserves credit for actually being first out of the gate, and it’s been gamely duking it out with Amazon ever since the Kindle arrived. But Sony was soon eclipsed by Kindle’s immediate wireless access to mountains of software, i.e., books. Yet the stark utilitarian use, which certain industries quickly sussed, is that you can also download any document file you like into these things. My old stomping ground, HarperCollins, issued Sony E-Readers to its senior staff to help them quit schlepping bulky paper manuscripts home. Variety reports that no show-biz agent worth his Valium lugs screenplays home any more: they all have e-readers, mostly Kindles. We’ll have to check back in a year or so to see whether or not Bryan Lourd is by then using an iPad. I remain unconvinced on the whole tablet thing for e-reading — they’re larger and heavier, and you can do most if not all of the same tricks with a smartphone – but for now let’s welcome in a significantly wider potential audience for e-books.
Ah, yes. Note that we’re selling and using palletloads of e-readers – Apple did a mind-blowing two million iPads in a couple of months, and that’s just in America – but we haven’t gotten to books yet.
I had lunch with my friend Jenny Frost, a very sharp book-biz veteran. She said that on the morning train commute into the city, it was first a novelty to see a Kindle. Then she noticed two or three. Then eight or ten. (These days, just before landing, the flight attendant frequently tells us to turn off iPods and Kindles by name; e-reading, via a certain brand name, is descending into the mainstream culture.) But whenever Jenny was close enough to see the screen, it turned out that everybody on the train was doing just what Mike Stackpole does every morning with his new iPad: they were all reading the news. The Times, the Journal, USA Today, whatever. But not books.
We have to separate the e-reading of manuscripts, screenplays, business reports and newspapers from the e-reading of books, if we want an accurate picture of this new technology’s impact. Furthermore, we have to understand what people are buying for their e-readers, not just downloading. Steve York cited an Apple release boasting a million and a half downloads from its iBooks store in the first month of the iPad’s release. Read that really fast and you think, wow, the book biz is saved! But we’re talking downloads, not sales, and every e-bookstore features hundreds, thousands, of public domain titles that are free – plus, at least in the Kindle store, free promotional copies of, say, the first novel in a continuing series, and I can’t imagine iBooks is any different in that regard. Even if I weren’t an avid reader, one of the first things I’d do with my new iPad would be to see what all the e-fuss is about and download a couple of free titles. Apple’s million and a half number, in and of itself, doesn’t prove anything; significantly, they did not mention actual sales. (In fairness, Amazon declines to even break out its Kindle numbers, so we have to guess there too.)
So: will e-books overtake print books within five years? (Emphasis strictly on books, now.) I think that’s unlikely, because as I’ve tried to show, there’s no evidence at all of a groundswell among consumers, no tsunami of pent-up demand that can’t do without its e-readers, no killer app. Most frequent readers already own their e-devices, and if you have a smartphone, you do too. The best we can guess is that e-books are only about 3 to 5 percent of the total trade business right now (my metric isn’t downloads but money), and the sector may be growing fast, but not that fast. However, tumultuous things do happen really quickly these days. Remember when there was no Facebook? That was in January 2004. Not one single consumer owned an iPod on October 22, 2001. The Sony Corporation knows full well how powerful the whirlwind can become: it was one of the dominant distributors of music before June 1999 and the debut of Napster. Maybe knowing that an explosion rocked his company before anybody could even breathe prods Steve Haber into predicting five years for e-books’ market leadership: he used to say ten, which is more like something I could believe in. (First we need more bells and whistles, like cookbooks with video, so that one day even a reader of comics won’t be able to resist.)
And, of course, nobody owned a Kindle – and only a tiny few outside Sony, definitely excluding Apple’s Steve Jobs, even took e-books seriously – on November 18, 2007. Maybe I’ll have to eat my words five years from now, because when you look back, that span seems like an eternity. All I’ll offer is that digital music piracy took off when the public decided it was being overcharged in general, and forced to buy ten songs when all it wanted was one. Anything that makes it harder or more expensive for customers to buy your product disinclines the purchase, and is simply bad business. Marketing 101, dude. We’ll see whether that lesson has been learned as we watch the big trade publishers fight to retain their dominance, while guys like Steve Haber hear the wind picking up.
7/20: An interesting development was reported today. Now what we need to know is, how many of these e-book sales — Amazon stipulates that these figures exclude free books — come from Random House, which allows the retailer to set the price rather than the publisher (that is, sell ’em cheaper)? In other words, is there a price differential already between e-books and hardcovers? I was talking to a woman last weekend who said she didn’t mind higher prices for e-books, because the convenience, at least in Kindle’s case, was worth it. It may be that the only people who complain will be early adopters who can remember when the price for most new books was $9.99.
8/17: Now I have direct experience with both Kindle and iPad. This is my take.