The pbook tail: an ursine stump. The ebook tail: very long, very thin. And very different…Posted: August 7, 2012
Some Twittering this morning, inspired by a couple of articles spotted by Jellybooks‘ Andrew Rhomberg. One is a market report from Publishing News, the other a blog entry distributed by ebookporn.
Low prices are transforming ebook buying behaviour from “buying to read” to “buying to collect” http://ebookporn.tumblr.com/post/28845301698/why-publishers-are-having-difficulty-settling-on-a …
Collect, or just accumulate?
bit of both? Some is accumulate “wanted to read” (and then forgot), but also collect “don’t want to miss out” (deal!)
the post certain rang a bell with me in that ebook buying and physical book buying are evolving somewhat differently
you now have genuine impulse buying from the comfort of your home and at genuine “impulse prices”
Front list/back list ratio is 40/60 for print, books, but 20/80 for ebooks! http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/bookselling/article/53430-what-happened-to-the-long-tail-.html …
Concepts like frontlist/backlist, based on print runs/reviews/marketing, increasingly redundant in ebook world.
PN notes that Nielsen Bookscan has reported a fall of 30%, almost one-third, in US sales of fiction backlist titles in printed book form, for the period ending 22nd July 2012, compared to one year earlier.
The shift in market shape is accelerating, not slowing down, with the article noting a significant fall in physical book space at retail outlets (over and above Borders’ US closure). One major American publishing group is reporting that 80% of backlist sales are now in ebook format – the pbook long tail is getting shorter and shorter. Assuming Amazon still accounts for a large part of those backlist sales, backlist bread-and-butter in bookshops must be looking very stumpy indeed. And without backlist sales to prop up the discounted frontlist, the book-specific store model looks very troubled. Booksellers need to diversify, and to recognise that the “general bookstore” is probably unsustainable.
But hell, you know that already. What’s piqued my interest today is the effect that all of this will have on publishers – and not so much on the grand strategies of media groups (many of which are quite forward-looking), but more on the basics of seasonality, range management and changing consumption patterns.
Amazon made one of their opaque announcements this week, proclaiming that for every 100 physical paperbacks and hardbacks they had sold in 2012, UK customers had downloaded 114 titles to its Kindle e-reader. Such is Amazon’s dominance in the UK book market that this was headlined “Readers are now buying more e-books than printed books“, ignoring the enfeebled minority of book-lovers who are doltish enough not to use Amazon.
Ebook customers aren’t behaving like pbook customers. Are you a traditional “heavy book buyer”? If so, how many books might you buy for yourself at a time – four, five? Any more, and the weight/bulk will be too much to carry, and once you get home, there’s the imputation that all those pages piled up at your bedside must be read.
Whereas ebooks – pah, easy. Click, download. Click, download. Moby-Dick – always meant to read that. Click, download. À la recherche du temps perdu, twelve volumes for £3.25 – no problem. Click, download. Having it on your Kindle is almost tantamount to reading the thing anyway.
Back to that ebookporn piece. As the writer notes, people are downloading “huge chunks of content that will never be read”. The piece concludes:
If your download 70 books at $0.99 each you are spending $70 and acquiring years of books to read. Very soon this reader stops purchasing and that sales bubble bursts.
If instead they were to spend not $70 for 70 books but $7 a month for access to 7 million books this reader spends $84 a year, year in and year out. Knowledge is light and it stands to reason that access to all books can be sold like a utility such as electricity, water, and internet access.
This is what might be described, broadly speaking, as the Spotify principle, and it’s one that slashes through publishing, bookshops and libraries as we know them. Which has more value to a reader who has no desire to surround him/herself with dead tree content – 70 ebooks, most of them unread and never-to-be-read, or an almost infinite quantity of content, from classics to trash, all available from the cloud at a moment’s notice?
This brings us back to frontlist and backlist. I can understand how new ebook content can break through and succeed, whether a title starts with word-of-mouth build, typical of self-published hits, or is driven by a professional marketing campaign. However, that approach divides ebooks into Monster Hits and Everything Else. When publishers were putting out a few dozen pbook titles each season, they were reasonably certain that most bookstores would carry/display/promote most of those titles. The books would get their place in the sun, and then (if they’d sold a few copies) earn a position in the backlist, where sales could tick over unto eternity. They would move from frontlist to backlist; most of them heading ultimately to oblivion, and few lasting for lifetimes.
There is no straightforward translation of this old world into the land of ebooks, where hits will be bigger and faster, but will probably also be forgotten more swiftly. The solution, of course, is not to try and force a frontlist/backlist pbook mindset on the ebook world, but to adapt methods that works best for readers – who now have the freedom to behave in a totally different, less considered way.
Note, methods. Sales will fluctuate; surge, recede and return again. Content will no longer be defined by its copyright date, but by its relevance to a particular reader’s needs. Publishers will require a whole range of different sales tactics which are reliant on understanding the end customer. This is best achieved through partnership with sellers, sharing sales data and market understanding, though it runs counter to Amazon’s established strategy – Seattle is determined to hold on to its data and control the customer relationship.
The “Spotify” approach is a rational response to the hangover that will follow downloading excess; alternatively, publishers may have to assume that a high proportion of ebooks will be sampled, but never read, and price them accordingly. Neither solution represents a straightforward “format shift” (in the way that hardcovers were succeeded by paperbacks in the mid 20th century). Consumers aren’t thinking in those terms, so publishers are going to have to change their model fundamentally. And because the book has been such a successful object for so many centuries, that’s a difficult shift for people and corporations alike. Ask any old bookseller – we know…
And to close, a gratuitous photo of about seventy pbooks, all of them pretty well-read…