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E-Book Bummer: Growth Slower Than Thought — ‘Incremental, Not Exponential’

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Last year was widely perceived to be a year of outrageous e-book growth, but some new research suggests otherwise. According to new data from Bowker and the Book Industry Study Group, the number of book buyers who also purchased an e-book increased by 17 percent in 2011, compared to 9 percent in 2010 – well below the 25 to 30 percent growth that some had hoped for.

To be sure, this growth varied by genre, noted Bowker’s Kelly Gallagher at Digital Book World this morning. (Bowker conducted this research with the Book Industry Study Group.) E-books now make up 26 percent of adult fiction purchases, compared to 11 percent of children’s book purchases and 3 percent of cookbook purchases.

Seventy-four percent of book buyers have never bought an e-book (and 14 percent of those actually own an e-reader or tablet but choose not to use it to read e-books).

Bowker looked at the habits of “power buyers” — people who purchase four or more print or e-books per month. “Whether print or digital, publishers’ best customers now look alike,” said Gallagher.

Print power buyers make up 22 percent of the overall print book-buying population, and they drive 53 percent of print book purchases overall.

Meanwhile, e-book power buyers make up 35 percent of the overall e-book buying population, but they drive 60 percent of overall e-book purchases. In other words, about a third of the overall buyers drive two-thirds of overall purchases. Casual e-book buyers “are not pulling their weight” compared with casual print book buyers, Gallagher said.

There’s a bright spot for e-book growth: Around 7 to 12 months after buying their first e-book, 72 percent of power buyers switch over to e-books exclusively.

Overall, though, print power buyers slowed their entry into the e-book marketplace in 2011. “That’s why we didn’t see exponential growth,” Gallagher said. And beyond those power-buying voracious readers, casual e-reading is at risk: As more people buy tablets, e-reading becomes just one option among many.

The Digital Book World conference is taking place in New York this week. See all our Digital Book World coverage here.

3 Responses to “E-Book Bummer: Growth Slower Than Thought — ‘Incremental, Not Exponential’”

  1. I’ve owned a Kindle for two months now and I’m already convinced its going to change the way we read books for ever.
    People who bemoan the popularity of this format often like to talk about the ‘feel’ of books or even their smell but for me the absence of these things can take nothing away from a good story. Was the soft crackle you used to get at the start of an LP really better than the ability to create a seamless playlist of all your favourite tracks? Was the enjoyment to be had in dusting the vinyl somehow worth more than being able to store your entire music collection on a device the size of a kitkat that also happens to be a phone?
    And will anyone genuinely miss finding out that the Blackadder tape they had spent the last six weeks recording had been inadvertently videoed over with an hour’s worth of random channel surfing?
    Books will be a tough habit to break, they are our most long lived format for conveying  and storing the written word, but the rise of digital media is hardly its death knell. A tremendous number of our best loved classics are available on Kindle very cheaply – or even for free.
    As a boy I read ‘For the Term of His natural Life’ by Marcus Clarke and was enthralled by the struggles of the indomitable Rufus Dawes against the brutal gaoler Captain Frere and was chilled by the descriptions of the brutal penal colony of Van Dieman’s land.
    With my Kindle I was able to find and download it with no trouble, it took me nearly four minutes and cost 96p.

  2. There is a fundamental reason e-books can only expand linearly at this point: they are dependent on asymmetrical (one-way) devices: devices only for consumption of content.

    Only when the devices become symmetrical–able to produce their own content–will they go viral (like PCs and cellphones).

    BTW, I’m talking only about e-paper devices, because only e-paper provides an experience remotely comparable to that of paper and ink. Backlit screens simply waste the eyes, mind, and emotions of those who gaze at them due to flicker (including LED backlight in many cases due to pulse width modulation). Devices with such screens thus cannot support serious writing any more than current computers. So the game remains unchanged and e-books languish.

    Fortunately, something new is afoot now, thanks to yours truly and some developers I found on xda. I asked them to hack the Nook Simple Touch to connect to a USB external keyboard, and they did it within 48 hours. Now they are ironing out the kinks. Yes, this is the first time this has been done on a low cost e-paper device. The hack is already spreading. Soon, we will be writing e-books on e-paper. Only when e-readers ship with this capability can e-books take over.

  3. There’s a reason for this.  I’ve had a kindle for years now, and while I love the device and have hundreds of books, the book buying experience is awful.  The current algorithms for recommending books to read as near as I can tell were developed for selling dishwashers or something.  KNN is not how I buy books folks.

    I can’t buy books fast enough to keep myself in the habit of picking up my kindle to read them.   Ebooks lack a velocity inducing component.  Where a gaming platform allows you to enjoy the same story arc repeatedly, or a content platform (eg pandora, your syfy channel etc.) has correctly packaged content that repeats the same expected media experience, kindle fails.  You are forced to exit the experience and be tortured trying to get to the next installment.  And I truly mean tortured.  

    Consider that when I walk into a book store I can immediately tell how big a book is, if it’s a series where it is in the series, does the cover meet my expectations(eg hard scifi, fantasy or whatever), and is it a publisher I like (tor, baen etc.).  I can easily buy as much “experience” as I want.

    But on amazon, depending on where you are in their store, you are presented with recommendations you have seen before, you are shown books you can’t get on the kindle, and you are presented with books you already own.  Visually, the web site reads like a trader joes catalog, not a book shelf (and Amazon has Shelfari, go figure).  God forbid you try and buy books actually _from_ the kindle.  I still can’t tell which books are which in a series.

    Some easy solutions are to enable the publishing platform to allow the author/publisher to communicate the next book in the series to the audience, and then when I read a book, I immediately should be asked to rate that book (or when I abandon it, I have thereby rated it) and then buy the next book in the series.If I was Amazon I’d look at Pandora more and adopt some better genome based technology (a la booklamp), and then I would study how books are arranged at book stores. I would also look at how to provide a kickback to physical bookstores to promote my books.

    The kindle is a great device, I own several, but it’s store front has a ways to go  

    Tom Des Jardins