One of my favorite predictions I have put down on pixel and screen is this one from 2007, when the Kindle had just been announced, e-book sales were virtually nonexistent, and the iPad was but a glimmer in Steve Jobs’ eye:
In my opinion there will never be a widely used iPod of books, a device that people buy specifically for books — e-books will take off when they can be easily downloaded and easily read on a device like a larger iPhone-of-the-future, something people already have, which evens out the economics since you don’t have to plop down a significant chunk of money before you even buy a book. This would give e-books the decisive edge in economics, which might just tip the world of books toward e-books. Until then? Printed page for most of us.
I would argue that this is pretty much what has happened in the last six years. Yes, Kindles have sold pretty well and you see them around town, but they’re nowhere near the ubiquity that iPods were in the mid-2000s. Print is still a majority even as Kindle prices dropped below $100. We haven’t yet reached a majority e-book world, and it’s still “printed page for most of us,” as the last paragraph suggests.
And yet… I’m actually a little worried about this prediction.
The second part of the prediction is that e-book sales would reach a majority when most everyone has a “larger iPhone-of-the-future,” aka an iPad, iPad Mini, Nexus 7, Kindle Fire, Nook HD… you get the picture.
We’re almost there. There are now tons of tablets in the world. Apple sold 22.9 million iPads in the last quarter alone.
And yet growth in e-book sales seem to be leveling off. Even as people are buying more and more tablets, they’re not reading more and more e-books.
Some people, including Nicholas Carr in the previous link, see the leveling off of as proof that people are simply still attached to print books. I don’t doubt that this is the case for many people.
My fear is that books are losing ground to other forms of handheld portable entertainment. Tablets should make it easier for people to read more because there is no delay between deciding you want to read something and being able to read it. It’s (usually) cheaper to buy e-books. But that doesn’t seem to be happening at the moment.
And this is where publishers have to realize that they are not competing against just books anymore when they’re setting e-book prices.
Basically: Buy a new e-book for $11.99 or buy Angry Birds for $0.99? If you want to be entertained for six hours while you’re commuting and you’re cost conscious, that extra $10 goes a long way, and it adds up quick when you’re talking about buying multiple books over time.
E-books have to be priced in a way that makes sense relative to its competition. They’re not simply competing against other books anymore, they’re competing against very very cheap (or free) forms of entertainment on the same device. Books and magazines aren’t the only game in town for portable entertainment anymore.
I don’t think the book world should be patting itself on the back that e-book sales have slowed. Yes, print books will absolutely still exist and people are still attached to them. But if people aren’t reading books on tablets the book world will be in serious trouble as tablets become still-more ubiquitous in the future.
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Art: Take Your Choice by John F. Peto