What Happened to Ebooks?

I've mentioned on this blog a couple of times that e-books add about $500 a month to the bottom line of my publishing business. That's in the past tense now, since Amazon was my main outlet for e-books and they've begun eliminating all LSI e-books from their catalog. It will be interesting to see whether my direct and distribution sales pick up most of the slack, in terms of units if not profits, or whether Amazon e-book buyers were really preferentially shopping for an e-book from a vendor they were comfortable doing business with.

On the bright side, I'm not the only publisher with a list of e-books disappearing from Amazon. I used their Power Search function to check some of the big trade publishers’ e-book offerings for the past three years, and there were even more than I'd surmised. HarperCollins has listed 1569 paperbacks with Amazon after 2002, and 2765 hardcovers. They also listed 1148 e-books after 2002, all of which are likely versions of the paper books (didn't check them all for obvious reasons) and most of which now appear to be unavailable. Random House has 564 e-books listed after 2002, vs 1534 hardcovers and 1544 paperbacks. Time Warner had 622 e-book titles listed after 2002, Simon and Shuster had 225; the other big names I thought of seemed to have experimented less and dropped it. Still, there was plenty of variety for a while, much of it NYT bestseller list material. None of the titles I clicked on were still available for sale so I'm assuming they all got caught in the LSI wipeout.

It also occurred to me to check my website statistics for how many visitors have been drawn to my blog this month by an earlier post which is the #1 result in Google for "e-book sales." Hold onto your hat, the grand total was 32, or just over 1 visitor a day. That's a pretty sure sign that not many people are all that interested in how e-books are doing. The funny thing is I still hear from businesses on a fairly regular basis which have just developed the latest thing in DRM that they think will change the landscape of the e-book market. Personally, I don't think e-books will go anywhere in this country until school textbooks are replaced by electronic readers and a new generation grows up with them.

I did a little searching around the web for predictions from five years ago about what the size of the e-book market would be 2006. The range went from about $250 million to $2.5 billion, so some long forgotten analysts have some serious pie on their faces. I don't know of any realistic figures for the true size of the e-book market this year, but if you leave out the libraries and academic institutions who buy e-book material because they have to, I wouldn't be surprised if it's less than $25 million in the U.S., and that would include a lot of questionable literature.

So what happened to e-books? Are they even relevant to publishing discussions anymore? I spent around $700 attending a conference on e-books hosted by the National Institute of Standards in Washington, DC in 2000 because I thought e-books were the future of publishing. I came home from that conference convinced that free books are are future of publishing, with online publishers finding other ways to monetize the pages through advertising or sales of paper books. I'm not complaining about the two years I had a few e-book titles on Amazon, it put around $10,000 in my pocket (well, $5K for me and $5K for Uncle Sam). I can't say I'd encourage anybody to go into e-book publishing today unless they had content that just couldn't be monetized or delivered any other way.


George Wolff said...

You write "I don't think e-books will go anywhere in this country until school textbooks are replaced by electronic readers and a new generation grows up with them."
I agree. How can I get my e-textbook published?
Look at it (work in progress):

Morris Rosenthal said...


Boy, was I ever wrong. I wrote this post in July, 2006, and the next year Kindle came out. Since that time, eBooks have been THE growth market for books, Borders has closed, taking around a quarter of book retailing space with it, eBooks are clearly winning.

Your book looks interesting, certainly books about poetry have more of a market than poetry books, unless you're a dead poet. For self publishing, the best combination these days is Amazon's CreateSpace (free, so a good place to start) followed by Ingram's Lightning Source, for superior price flexibility and distribution.