LibraryThing: Feedback loops in ebook adoption

Over on the Thingology blog, Tim Spalding has a long and interesting post in which he speculates on the likely future market share of ebooks. He argues that once ebook adoption reaches a certain point, there will be a tipping point and we will see ebooks becoming the dominant format, and “most bookstores [will] vanish, non-academic publishers [will be] largely disintermediated away, and public libraries [will be] in crisis”. His reasons:

  1. Ebooks win on convenience….as ebooks cannibalize print sales…paper books [will be] increasingly hard to find…less convenient, harder to browse and less socially rewarding.
  2. Paper books depend upon economies of scale….as ebooks take off paper-book costs will rise.
  3. Ebooks are already cheaper than printed books, and bound to get cheaper still.
  4. As books drop out of print, ereaders become a necessity.
  5. Once a consumer gets over [the initial cost of a reader]…all subsequent book-buying decisions are influenced by that sunk cost.
  6. Ereaders become more powerful as you buy more books….[the] difference between a device that has a few books you bought since Christmas and a device that has everything you’ve read since high-school.
  7. Ereaders are a networked good, like the telephone or the internet [discusses the value of sharing and social reading].
  8. As ebooks take off, we will figure out what they’re good for…..I suspect the real gain will come in genres that didn’t work as well in print. Nothing about short stories or poems requires they be bound together into anthologies or sold in tiny and expensive editions. The economics of print did that. Ebooks will change the market logic, and then change expectations. I don’t see someone accustomed to buying short stories on their Kindle reverting to the print-book model of buying anthologies.
  9. Right now–and I believe for a long time–ebook success accrues to a small number of companies, with Amazon in the lead. Concentrated power of this sort is bad news for publishers struggling to retain high ebook prices.

Some interesting comments there. I’m a bit sceptical about some of them. Take the cost issues (#2 and #3): Tim’s obviously correct that ebooks have no marginal cost [1]. But….so what? The cost of something to the vendor is not necessarily the price the vendor charges to the customer – look at CD’s, which were cheaper to produce than vinyl records, yet cost a lot more (about 50% when I was growing up). And, too, how much is the physical cost of a book, really? I recently bought new paperbacks by Dozois and Stross for £6-7, including postage – how much cheaper could these have been as ebooks?[2]

#5 and #6 are definitely relevant for heavy readers – people like myself and most/all LibraryThing users.  But I wonder how many people actually fit this category (or, rather, how many books are sold to them). Is the long tail (of people reading lots of books) a more important part of the market than the head – a large number of people who each read only a few blockbusters?

According to a 2007 poll, the average number of books read was seven (excluding non-readers, which we want to do because they aren’t going to read print or ebooks) (The Guardian).  So maybe there are a lot of people who would never find it economical to purchase an ebook reader, and maybe those people would still represent a significantly large market for print books? On the other hand, this more recent survey suggests that 57% of Americans are reading 6 or more books per year (40% reading more than 10) so maybe the light readers don’t form a large part of the market. In which case, Tim is probably right.

Still, I suspect there will be a significant number of light readers who don’t see the need for ebook readers – I hope they’re able to continue reading print books.

Too, I suspect that those who do adopt ereaders won’t just buy one – they will update every few years, as we already do with MP3 players and computers and phones. So a Kindle isn’t a one-off cost of £149/£109 – it’s that cost every four or five years. Perhaps for some people that’s an argument against Tim’s point #5.

Point #7 I agree with; although there doesn’t seem to be a reason why the book has to be electronic – we can already take advantage of the social aspects of reading through sites like LibraryThing. Of course, ebooks have the advantage of enabling us to easily share bookmarks and comments and extracts. And that leads into the excellent point #8 – we don’t know what ebooks will be able to do. Maybe they’ll enable whole new forms of reading and writing? I’m not sure that the death of short-story collections is as likely as Tim thinks: part of the advantage of (multi-author) anthologies is that they serve as an introduction to new authors. Part of what I pay for when I buy a Dozois anthology is the fact that I trust his judgement. Even if it were possible to buy the stories I wanted from that anthology individually, there wouldn’t be much saving to me – at roughly £0.25 per story, it’s simply not worth the time and effort of identifying and buying the stories one by one.

That said, I am nearly certain that ebooks will offer us opportunities that we haven’t thought of yet.

There are some very interesting comments (41, as I write) on the post, which address issues such as censorship, upgrades and obsolescence, monopolies, tracking of reading activity, borrowing of books and many more. Definitely worth a read.

[1] I’d suggest “very negligible marginal cost” – the vendor still has to provide disc space and bandwidth for the customer to download the book.
[2] I say ‘could’ because Stross’ Wireless isn’t available for the Kindle. Dozois’ SF anthology is (slightly cheaper than the print version) – but the question is, could it be cheaper? If so, how much?

About simonchamberlain

New Zealand librarian and music fan, living in London.
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1 Response to LibraryThing: Feedback loops in ebook adoption

  1. Good post. As I’ve noted for more than a decade, the portion of a book’s price that’s related to its physicality–typesetting, printing, binding, shipping, warehousing–is almost never more than one-seventh (most estimates I’ve seen are closer to one-eighth). Even one-off paperback book production’s not all that expensive. And as I’ve seen for more than a decade, those who’re convinced that print books have to die won’t acknowledge those figures or attempt to deny them through actual research–facts aren’t relevant to their cases. That seems unlikely to change.

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