Is the ebook boom already over? by Dirk Rumberg

In the week prior to the Frankfurt Book Fair the reports and rumours were amassing that the ebook market had reached its limits of expansion – at least for published titles. Widely divergent figures and prognoses circulated at the Frankfurt fair and in general, as ever, an air of edginess and uncertainty prevailed about the appropriate way to react to digital changes. But the good news for all bookworms is that for the key markets sales in the book sector are generally increasing; in Germany as well in the USA more print books are being sold again.

In Germany the industry association for companies in the digital sector, Bitkom, published a survey according to which the number of ebook readers rose by just one per cent compared with the previous year. 32 per cent of 14- to 29-year-olds read ebooks, whereas this was 30 per cent for 30- to 49-year-olds and 28 per cent for the 50 to 64 age group, while this was just 11 per cent for readers above age 65. In total, only one quarter of Germany’s citizens reads ebooks. On the other hand, 39 per cent basically rules out reading any book on a screen.

In Great Britain, a book and ebook market that many continental European publishers have eyed up during recent years with many assuming their own development would progress as it has done here, ebook sales (of publishers) have even declined – while the sector has grown as a whole. According to a study by Nielsen market researcher, BookScan, from the start of the year until August, sales of print books in the British book market have increased by 4.6 per cent – the first rise since 2007. Also relevant is that British book retail chain Waterstones (with about 300 branches in Great Britain and Ireland) will in future no longer sell the Kindle e-reader in its branches – it would prefer to use the space for sales of print books again. Waterstone’s experience with poor Kindle sales is no exception, for instance, Blackwell’s books records markedly weakening business for the e-reader Nook. A trend in Great Britain therefore continues that already emerged in 2014 in the most developed ebook market – in the US. In 2014, for the first time in quite a while the number of sold print books again increased by a respectable 2.4 per cent compared with the previous year.

The ebook boom is certainly not over. However, the limits of growth for this market are now clear – and it’s happened quicker than many people thought. It’s becoming increasingly more unlikely that market quotas for the ebook in Europe will be similar to those in America. In Germany, the quota of ebooks is stagnating. Only a few publishers will achieve a sales quota of over about ten per cent.

Nevertheless, many publishers are preoccupied with two major concerns with regard to digital offers. Firstly, the monopolistic sales structures, or in practice the absolutely dominant market role of Amazon. Secondly, increasing competition from self-publishers.

This year was the first year that Amazon attended the Frankfurt Book Fair. It was represented with a big stand in Hall 3.0, just a few metres from major mainstream publishing houses. The industry giant awarded (with a star-studded jury) a lucrative prize for a self-publisher who picked up a print book contract with Lübbe in addition to 30,000 Euros prize money. Plenty of managers from Seattle and Luxembourg attended – they were prominent and had obviously travelled some distance. All in all this was a clear signal that one of the leading industry players is no longer hidden away here, even if it continues to clam up when it comes to shedding light on any figures. However, discussions with other industry participants lead to the definite conclusion: the giant from Seattle/Luxembourg accounts for more than 50 per cent (some think this is 65, others even 80 per cent) of sales in the (German) ebook market. This applies for publishing titles, and in particular, also for the self-publisher market where Amazon has significantly expanded its value added chain thanks to KDP, and for which the giant is by far the most important sales channel.

What has definitely already motivated the digital opportunity of creating, selling and reading books is an even broader and even more confusing range of offers – along with falling average prices. The Bitkom study already mentioned also shows that in Germany now more than half of the 100 best-selling ebooks originates from self-publishers, in other words from writers who don’t sell their works via publishers (and generally for markedly lower prices than these). Every fifth interviewee admitted to having already read ebooks from self-publishers once. This ‘democratizing process’ in publishing will not vanish, and in future surely this will present established publishers with one of the biggest challenges.

It’s also worth glancing at the US, the source of these studies, which not only predict that print book sales have again outstripped those of ebooks, and mainly also indicate that after a decline by eight per cent in 2014, this year ebook sales are due to collapse by up to a quarter (24 per cent). However, this only applies to titles that are released by publishing houses. The ebook market as a whole continues to expand – even in the US, yet the growth is exclusively down to the success of self-publishers. Now, the (German) publishers are also reacting to this. For instance, last year after Lübbe already took a majority stake in the self-publishing platform bookrix, in this sector Droemer has also been active for a while with its neobooks. All the rumours and information now prove that other publishers (like Piper) also offer markedly improved ebook terms.On the eve of the book fair Random House (together with BoD) even announced that it was founding its own self-publishing platform called Twentysix. In the relevant forums and blogs, the industry giant already largely earned mockery and ridicule for this – and in particular, for the rumoured terms and conditions package. Indeed, it’s questionable whether it can succeed with these types of offers in winning any substantial share of the self-publisher market.

In conversations and during tours of the exhibition halls in Frankfurt as well as at publisher parties, there was plenty of talk again of digital developments and challenges. Subscription models were the source of equally controversial debate, like the latest verdict that the economic viability of scientific publishers is under threat by offering libraries extended rights for digital ‘loans’. Nevertheless, leaving the fair you had the feeling that for the foreseeable future book publishers and the book trade (unlike other media organizations such as newspaper and magazine publishers or even music labels) will do their main business with print books – simply because the readers want it that way.

By Dirk Rumberg

Translated by Suzanne Kirkbright

This blog was originally published on ELit Literature House Europe‘s website on 20 October 2015.

Category: ELit Literature House Europe Observatory

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