Thoughts on Publishing: The Future of the Ebook

I’ve written before about the ebook and where it might be headed. I’d like to go into a little more detail this time. The ebook is the future of publishing, of that I have no doubt. When is that future going to arrive? Is it here now, or are those that say it’s here overhyping the situation?

It’s true that in the last couple of years the ebook has boomed after years of broken promises. Amazon’s Kindle has a lot to do with it. Amazon has produced an e-reader that’s attractive and functional. It doesn’t hurt that they did so after becoming the dominant online book retailer. Right now the ebook accounts for just over 5% of all books sold; within a year that number could be 10%.

Sounds like the print book is in real danger, right?

In 2008 Kelly Gallagher of Bowker conducted a survey on book buying. There are a few aspects of that survey that stand out for me on the topic of ebooks. The report stated that the average age of readers was 44; the average age of the buyers that purchase the most books was 50; and that two-thirds of the books bought that year were purchased by those over the age of 42. This says to me that Baby Boomers are still the dominant readers and book buyers.

What does this mean for the ebook? There does appear to be growth in the adoption of ebooks among Boomers. But this is a generation that laughed with comedians who joked about not being able to program VCRs or understand computers. This is also a generation that’s starting to reach retirement age. One of the faculties that diminishes as one ages is eyesight.

This says to me that as long as Boomers are the main book buyers, they’re likely to prefer print to the ebook. Sure, e-readers can increase font sizes. I’m just not certain that a generation that wasn’t raised with technology, and that has been slower to embrace tech than their kids, will drive a boom in ebooks.

That same survey suggests that while Generations X and Y are more tech-savvy, they read a lot less. They also buy fewer books than the Boomers, print or ebook. They have more entertainment options than their parents and grandparents. Reading is one choice, but it’s one that not as many choose as before.

There will be fast growth in ebook sales over the next few years. I suspect that this will slow down in five years, going from a couple of percent increase a year to one percent or less. It’s likely that the next boom in ebooks will come when Boomers begin dying off in large numbers. As that happens print books sales will plummet and ebooks sales will come to dominate the publishing industry.

But there is one odd aspect to that survey that’s worth pondering. It stated that young people preferred physical bookstores while older people preferred online shopping. What does that mean?

I think that means that among those of Generations X and Y who are readers, they view reading as partly a social activity. They go to the bookstore to read, to talk about books, and perhaps to meet authors at signings. If that’s true, how does the ebook fit into this notion?

In a way, it doesn’t. You don’t buy ebooks at physical stores; you buy them alone and online. Buying ebooks isn’t a social but a solitary activity. So if younger readers do view reading as partly socializing, how eager will they be to abandon the print book and the socializing that goes with it?

Perhaps very eager, perhaps not so much. That question does lead to the next consideration in this discussion: how will the stores fare?

In the meantime, I'd love to hear what you think about where the ebook is going, so please post a comment.  Stay tuned...

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