Why aren’t ebook sales catching fire?

I’ve been following the Hachette-Amazon fight from a distance mostly because I don’t read that many ebooks. Even though I own an older model Kindle with an e-ink display, one that supposedly does not strain the eyes, I have found that my eyes prefer printed books. I also think this preference is a result of me already spending more time in front of a screen than I’d like to and reading a book in its physical, printed form offers a break. The other advantage of reading a physical book vs on a mobile device is that there are no messaging, email or social media app notifications constantly interrupting my reading.

But that’s just my personal preference. Surely the US reading public has made the switch to digital?

Q1 2014 Publisher Revenue for Trade books. Source: GalleyCat

Q1 2014 Publisher Revenue for Trade books.  Source: GalleyCat

Well, not as much as I expected. In 2013 dollar sales were split roughly between hardcovers, paperbacks and ebooks, meaning that ebooks are only a third of the market. Compare that to music, where it seems that digital has completely overtaken physical sales of music. While album sales are somewhat balanced between digital and CD sales in the US (vinyl is now 2% of album sales; digital albums comprise 40.6% and the CD is 57.2% and cassettes and DVDs 0.2%) the picture changes when the stats of digital tracks are factored in. Digital track sales were 1.26 billion units in 2013 while while digital album sales were only 117.6 million units. This is also before stats for streaming music are added to the mix. An overwhelming win for digital formats.

Back to the Hachette-Amazon fight, which focuses on ebook pricing. Amazon wants lower prices and Hachette wants to be able to set their own. Yesterday I read a very interesting analysis of the fight and I wanted to quote the author’s take on the user perspective that I found spot on:

“As reader of books I want ebooks to be cheaper than paperbacks because a) they’re obviously cheaper to make and b) when I “buy” an ebook I have fewer rights to do what I want with it than I do when I buy a paperback, so please don’t try to pretend it’s the same thing. If the first sale doctrine doesn’t apply to an ebook purchase, or doesn’t apply as completely, then it better be cheaper.”

I agree completely. From a quick, informal survey of 10 books it seems that Kindle editions on Amazon are sold at a price just below the price of a paperback, if it has been released, or at about 70% of the price of the hardback edition if it has not. But an ebook is an inferior product to a paperback. It cannot be shared, it cannot be loaned, it cannot be resold and it cannot be donated to the local library. It cannot even be shared between members of the same household. Therefore, customers are not willing to pay the same price for an ebook as a physical book. In spite of both containing the exact same content, it is not the same product. Cost is irrelevant.

As long as ebooks remain shackled by DRM limitations, customers will not be willing to pay the same price for ebooks and paperbacks.

Amazon, Hachette, thanks for listening. You can now go back to your squabbling.



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