A number of analysts have been proclaiming that within a few years digital eBooks will overtake print. PricewaterhouseCoopers is one of the most notorious, who recently said this will occur in 2018. Is this possible?
In the United States and Britain, sales of eBooks represent between a quarter and a third of the consumer book market. According to a recent survey by Nielsen Books, eBook sales made up 23% of unit sales for the first six months of 2014, while hardcover’s accounted for 25% and paperbacks 42%.
Ever since the Kindle was released in 2007 digital sales have consistently increased by double digit figures. In 2013, sales growth for eBooks slowed to single digits, and the new numbers from Nielsen suggest the leveling off was no anomaly.
Can we ever get to the point where eBook sales will outsell print, whether its in 2018, as PWC expects, or beyond? I think its possible, but a number of things have to occur for the general public to really embrace it.
One of the big drawbacks in North America and the UK is the fact digital books are merely licensed and not truly owned. When you buy an eBook from Amazon, Barnes and Noble or Kobo you don’t actually own it, you are basically just buying a temporary license. The lack of ownership can create a host of problems that end up being mainstream news. In 2013 Amazon remotely deleted purchased copies of George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm from customers’ Kindles after providing them a refund for the purchased products. This was primarily due to a rift with the original publisher and rights issues. Additionally, a Norwegian women tried to purchase a Kindle book from the UK bookstore. Under Amazon’s rules, this type of action is barred, as the publisher seeks to control what content is read in which territory of the world. Her account was promptly deleted and all content lost.
Another big reason why eBooks likely won’t overtake print anytime soon is chiefly due to Adobe DRM. Digital Rights Management is a form of encryption that prevents unauthorized access or distribution of eBooks you purchase. This is primarily why if you borrow a digital title from the library or buy an eBook online, you need to use Adobe Digital Editions to load it on your e-reader. Unlike real books, you can’t loan out purchased content out to friends, unless you give out your account information to a friend, which is against the terms of service. Some publishers have opted into a program for the sharing of a title for up to two weeks, one time on the Kindle and Nook ecosystem. But these companies do little to promote it and the actual process is a bit complicated.
I think what the eBook industry needs to do is gravitate away from using Adobe Digital Editions as the default standard to protect publishers content. Instead, they need to start embracing Social DRM or Digital Watermarks. In the last few weeks I have conducted interviews with Digimarc and Booxtream, which have been eye opening. They basically outlined their technology in such a way that I thought “why isn’t everyone doing this?”
Right now digital watermarking is big in Europe and is considered the de’facto standard in the publishing arena, but now North Americans are slowly starting to realize the potential. The watermark is imperceptible to the average book reader because the underlying technology is invisible to the naked eye. The way it handles data can take two distinctive forms: personal information about the user who purchased the eBook (such as an email address) or an ID number that the distributor can use to look up the user or transaction in a database. This technology basically allows users to easily loan an eBook to a friend or load it on their smartphone, tablet, or e-reader without the need to use any 3rd party programs. Its as simple as using Windows Explorer when your gadget is plugged into your computer and copy/paste.
Finally, the worldwide market has failed to embrace eBooks in a meaningful way, as readers in North America have. Last year, digital books made up 8% of the consumer book market in France, less than 4% in Germany and Italy, and 1% in Sweden and Norway. In Asia, Japan led the eBook markets with 15% of the country’s total consumer book revenues; China and India, meanwhile, lagged far behind at 3%. Part of the reason why the adoption is so low is the actual cost of eBooks. If you look at the top 10 bestseller list, the average title is around $12.00 in the US, but in France its $24.99, $20.00 in Germany and 19.02 in Sweden.
So to sum everything up. In order for eBooks to have a shot at overtaking print there has to be a clear defined path of ownership. There also has to be a stabilization of pricing and it has to be very intuitive to loan a book to a friend or load it on as many devices as you desire.
Michael Kozlowski has written about audiobooks and e-readers for the past twelve years. Newspapers and websites such as the CBC, CNET, Engadget, Huffington Post and the New York Times have picked up his articles. He Lives in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.