Business Time: Ebooks are here to stay. Now what?

1 Nov

Hello, my business-savvy Skiffy and Fanty folk.

Continuing on the thread of talking about the business side of publishing, I wanted to spend today talking about digital distribution, both generally and more specifically.

Ebooks are really new as far as the publishing business is concerned. They’ve been around longer than they’ve been important, and now that they’re important, things have been changing very quickly. Ebooks have gone from 19% of Unit Sales in Science Fiction in 2010 to around 43% by latest reports (my ‘now’ data is from early 2013).

And these days, we don’t just read ebooks on e-ink readers or on our computers. We have tablets and mobile phones. I still prefer to read physical books when I can, but I’ve gotten great use out of my e-ink reader, thanks to the fact that it doesn’t contribute as much to eye strain (I spend a *lot* of time looking at glowing screens).

Oyster is a ebook service that’s trying to apply the Netflix model to books. For a monthly subscription rate of $9.95, members can read an unlimited selection of the ebooks Oyster has in their library on iPhone and iPad. The selection is currently limited, but only in the way that Netflix’s selection was limited when it started. There’s a lot in there, but they may not have exactly what you want right when you want it. The fact that you don’t have to mail the book back to Oyster means that if you’re a bigger reader, you can probably get an incredible value from the service if you read on an iOS device. From how I see it, Oyster’s success will depend on a number of factors, including how quickly they can expand their selection, how well they prove their value to users, and how they balance super-users (who will love the service and cost Oyster far more than they give the company) with more casual users who are paying for the versatility rather than for the volume.

Oyster Book Rentals Interface

But taken from a broader perspective, what does Oyster represent? I think it’s one of many indicators of a maturation of the ebook market and the ebook’s place in the publishing industry.

Ebooks aren’t the wildfire that’s going to burn bright and then leave the whole Savannah of publishing in ashes. If it was going to do that, it would have already. Ebook sales growth has lessened — though it’s still growing at an impressive rate. Many of the reports I see say that device adoption has also flattened, at that the huge load-up sales spikes that we saw over the end-of-year holiday seasons have shrunk as well. Lots of new devices are replacing older devices.  There will be some hand-me-down effect expanding the user base, but there might not be a multiplier on instant sales, especially if the hand-me-down is within the same family, using the same Kobo, Nook, iTunes, or Amazon account.

In addition to services like Oyster, we have ebook subscriptions, social-driven ebook stores like Zola, and Physical + Ebook bundling from Clonefiles and Kindle Matchbook. And that’s just the noticeable tip of the iceberg. We’ve reach the point where businesses assume that digital is an important part of a larger publishing strategy, and just selling ebooks isn’t innovation anymore. From a publishers’ standpoint, it’s time for each publisher to figure out how best to handle their ebook strategy, be that with with price promotions, bundling, co-promotions with ebook retailers, and so on.

Pocket Star Books

We’re also seeing digital-first or digital-only imprints like Witness, Hydra, Carina, and Pocket Star, which publishes my Ree Reyes books. E-original imprints let publishers take on authors at a lower financial risk and work on develop emerging voices, maintaining flexibility to then order physical editions of books that succeed in ebook, just as publishers have picked up self-publishing successes and helped them become physical bestsellers. E-original/E-first imprints are entirely reliant on digital strategies, lacking the Gigantic Tank of Visibility that is getting a physical book onto shelves.

Ebooks are here to stay.  They’re not the end of the world, and they are still evolving as they’ve ever been. And those of us working in publishing, authors and staff, have to do everything we can to stay ahead of the curve and keep up with the changing tides.

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