Monday, May 9, 2011

The Final Frontier

There's been talk—a lot of talk, mes auteurs—about the shift from print to digital media in the book publishing industry, both in a general sense and on this blog in particular. E-readers are becoming more ubiquitous every year; more and more books are consumed electronically; physical print runs are getting smaller and smaller.

However! It's important to remember that simply because something is the case in the United States doesn't mean it's necessarily true for the rest of the world. (I happen to believe civilization ends at the Hudson, but that's another story.)

The shift toward e-books isn't as pronounced in other English-speaking countries as it is in the United States, which is probably as much a function of platform/device availability/e-book rights as it is purely one of population size. For instance, e-book sales in the UK in 2010 were £180MM, or about $294MM; compare that to US 2010 e-book sales of $441.3MM.

US e-book sales were up $165% over the previous year, pushing their sales to 8% of the overall market (up from 3%); in the UK, the increase over 2009 sales was a much more modest 20%.

There is a word for this, folks, and it's spelled B-A-N-A-N-A-S.

Now, I have some theories about how e-books will come to parity with physical media in markets across different continents—and I can post about those eventually, if folks are interested—but the main point is that physical books aren't losing ground to electronic media as quickly or in the same ways as is occurring here in the United States. Even after we hit e-parity in the United States (my guess is 2013), there will still be a sizeable demand for English-language physical books overseas.

I do expect that, eventually, physical books will be left more or less to the bibliophiles. The fact that this may happen in a matter of years in the US, however, is no reason to believe it will happen as quickly or to the same extent elsewhere.


  1. At least partly that's not influenced by demand but by supply. There are some tricky hoops to jump through when selling internationally and most publishers are building their content generation using US-based media departments. Are they selling from US to UK? Or because they have offices in the UK is it UK to UK and subject to different taxes? Then there's the currency exchange and the challenges that faces to ecommerce mechanisms (for years that alone kept us from trying to sell internationally).

    I see a lot of complaints on blogs by people who want to buy ebooks but have to figure out how to mask their IP so they look like a US user to buy the books they want. Once publishers can distribute in foreign markets as easily as they can in the US, expect those percentages to jump higher than a measly 20%.

  2. Another point to consider is avid readers have already switched to digital apps and readers so they can clear their bookshelves and have room in their suitcases. General readers around the globe still have their other areas of interest.

  3. This is the first commentary I've seen regarding the switch to digital books outside of the US. How refreshing! It is a good reminder that the world is not as large as it used to be.

  4. What are your opinions about books in translation? Do you think they will be on par with e-editions or print books?

  5. Gah, dazzling as always with that mind of yours, Eric. Interesting take to give me yet another variable to think about.

    I'm interested in hearing your take Joseph's point, if there's any data you're privy to the rest of us aren't.

  6. I expect like with any technology, e-readers will continue to be more popular in the U.S., and probably in wealthier countries like the U.K., than in many other parts of the world due to sheer economics. We tend to be very U.S.-centric when we predict any new technological advance will become dominant, whether it's e-readers or transhumanism, ignoring that a good portion of the world won't be able to afford such things.

  7. I don't like ebooks. I can't help it. I work on a computer all day. Don't want to read off one for pleasure at night :P I love having a physical book in my hand!

  8. Overseas sales definitely have a lot to do with demand and supply. I'm from outside the US and it's only in the last six months that I have been able to buy eBooks in any quantity, and I still have problems.

  9. Now, I have some theories about how e-books will come to parity with physical media in markets across different continents—and I can post about those eventually, if folks are interested


    Do you read Neil's E-book Comments Blog?

    I love looking at his charts and reading updates on the situation, though I am terribly sad to see MMPBs taking the hardest hit. They're my favorite to pick up! (Hardcovers are prohibitively expensive for me, atm. I get most of mine at B&N's bargain racks.)

    Do you think the U.S. is sort of the world-wide "early adopter" phase of e-books? I think we've already hit/are very close to the local (US only) tipping point for e-readers, but globally a small percentage of the possibility.

    YA: Cheat, Liar
    Adult: Shackled

  10. I would love it if you'd write more blog posts about this:
    There are a lot of blogs out there that cover the agenting and editorial aspects of book publishing, but here you'll find out what happens to your book after it's been acquired.

    Since that's your area of expertise, and it interests me.