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The Fall of Print Books?

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Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Fall of Print Books?

When Amazon came out with the Kindle, many said that digital books were no substitute for the real thing. Others, however, predicted that e-books would spell the end for their print antecedents. Signs are now emerging that the latter group may be proved right. In mid-July Amazon announced that it sold 180 e-books for every 100 hardcover copies – an astounding statistic especially when considering that just four weeks before that, the figures were 143 e-books for every 100 real books. Price seems to have been a key reason for this recent ascendance of e-books. For example, when in June Amazon dropped the price of its Kindle from $259 to $189, its sales tripled. This high elasticity of demand (PED value of 7.4) isn’t surprising considering the vast number of substitutes, namely, physical book publishers and the numerous other brands of e-readers. One can safely say that the ratio of 180:100 will only increase following Amazon’s recent price drop to $139.

In China too, it seems as if digital books have caught on. Shanda Literature just announced the launch of its Bambook e-reader which allows users access to a library of three million books and 1000 journals. Shanda is looking to challenge Hanvon Technology which, with a market share of almost 90% in the mainland, has monopolised the industry. Hanvon also predicts robust sales growth from 270,000 e-readers in 2009 to two million in 2010. These great growth prospects are only set to continue. 24.6% of mainlanders aged 18 to 70 now read books digitally. More worryingly for book stores and hardcover printing houses, that figure is 49% for mainlanders aged under 29 (Source: Joint Publishing, Chinese Institute of Publishing Books).

While this growing trend may be great for consumers, it will have harmful implications on the hardcover industry. Nearly half of China’s private bookstores have terminated operations in the past 10 years according to the Book Industry Chamber of Commerce under the All-China Federation of Industry and Commerce. This said, the impact on unemployment won’t be that great as many people who work in bookstores have skills that are transferrable to jobs in other shops.

Despite recent promising figures for e-readers across the world, they still have a long way to go. Yu Guoming, vice-dean of the school of journalism and communications at Beijing’s Renmin University, says that the industry hasn’t yet reached the stage where it experiences significant economies of scale. When it does, he says, ‘the price will fall’ and, judging from the elasticity of demand, that will lead to a tremendous rise in e-reader sales. In China at least, e-readers will have to contend with books available on the internet and on mobile phones. Books read in these forms currently corner the digital market – each form has a customer base 15 times larger than that of e-readers. So, in short, the era of hardcover books could be over and the digital age is just emerging.

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At April 25, 2011 at 9:02 PM , Anonymous Ric Faulkner said...

Great article but are you saying 15 time more books are read on mobile phones than on e-readers? I can't believe that figure as I can't imagine anyone reading a book on a mobile phone.
The question you don't address is "Does it matter?" It does to old guys like me as although I happily read the newspaper and blogs on screen, for something like a novel or a serious non-fiction I want to feel the book. However so what, new readers won't feel that and the figures suggest many are comfortable with e-reading. It should reduce the variable costs of publishing and so should lead to more choice (as in The Long Tail). Let's be optimistic about it.

At April 27, 2011 at 6:03 AM , Blogger Deep Vaze said...

Thanks. As far as I know the '15 times' stat is correct. Remember that the data is for China and I wrote the article in mid-2010 when the e-reader market was not well established. A month before writing, the price of a Kindle was US$259 - so you can imagine how low sales figures must have been at that elevated price point. The lower the e-reader sales, the more plausible '15 times' seems.

As for 'does it matter', I agree that we should be optimistic. While its true that some people wont be happy with the shift to digital books because of the lost 'feel', I think that younger people including students like myself will feel relatively less discomfort reading a digital book than they do sitting with a physical book in English class.

Regarding the issue of choice, I'm not sure that this is an advantage of digital books. While it is true that cheaper e-readers and e-books will make books more accessible to a greater number, lower barriers to entry to publish a book could be bad as we could end up with too much choice. Sifting out the good stuff would be a hassle.


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