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From Dead Tree Edition:

When the U.S. magazine industry gets hot and bothered about the latest craze, you can usually bet that trend is about to run out of steam.

E-books were the talk of many magazine people at this week’s Publishing Business Conference in New York, my spies tell me. The web – which is so hopelessly last year – was hardly mentioned. Everyone wanted to chat about their e-books and tablet editions, more so about their cool factor than about whether they were earning much profit.

Meanwhile, the book-publishing half of the huge conference was getting some rather startling news: The once-exploding sales growth of e-books in the U.S. has slowed dramatically, according to research from RR Bowker. (My correspondent’s account is corroborated by Paul Biba of TeleRead.) This just proves Stein’s Law of Economics: An unsustainable trend cannot be sustained.

“We went from exponential to incremental growth,” said Kelly Gallagher, a Bowker vice president, who also referred to “some level of saturation” in the U.S. market. The breathless predictions of two years ago, which suggested that the growth of e-books would soon shut down all the book printing presses and brick-and-mortar bookstores, turned out to be way off the mark.

E-book sales will probably continue to grow incrementally, Gallagher said, but no one has the market figured out. “Anyone who tells you they have figured it out is probably trying to get some consulting money out of you.”

Despite the massive purchases of tablets and e-readers during the 2011 holiday season, the proportion of book buyers who bought an e-book rose from 17% late last year to only 20% in January, according to Bowker’s research.

Recent buyers of e-reading devices are not purchasing as many e-books as the early adopters do, Gallagher said. Many of those who have switched over to full-color tablets may be caught up in “Angry Birds Syndrome”and not doing much book reading on their new gizmos.

And here’s the real shocker: The power purchasers of e-books (60% of the U.S. volume comes from people who buy at least four titles per month) are buying more ink-on-paper books than previously

All reports indicate that the conference had very few of the print-vs.-digital discussions of previous years. Most publishers seemed to accept that they would be making money from print for a long time to come, that digital editions had real promise, and that they needed to figure out how they could make actual money from the web.

The only “print is dead” sort of talk came in regards to textbooks, which some said would be rapidly replaced by e-books and educational software. But the children’s non-textbook book market is a different story, with e-books having less than 5% market penetration and not showing much promise in the tablet world.

“The App Store is a nightmare for finding children’s book apps,” one publisher complained. What we have here is a rare piece of good news for the future of print-media industries: Today’s children will be trained to associate e-editions with work and printed editions with fun reading.

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Reprinted, with permission, from Dead Tree Edition


  1. “Despite the massive purchases of tablets and e-readers during the 2011 holiday season, the proportion of book buyers who bought an e-book rose from 17% late last year to only 20% in January, according to Bowker’s research.”

    Er, isn’t that like a twenty percent increase in a month?

  2. A sense of balance is emerging as books span both paper and screen display. The industries are self-up-righting as highly centralized and capitol intensive print production is balanced by highly distributed ebook production. The readerships are self-fulfilling as well. Dedicated and scholarly readerships have always been characterized by highly diversified reading skills that can absorb any new delivery media. Equally important, that readership distinguishes between different functionalities of media and exploits each separately.

    The churn of obsolescence and displacement is occurring, again as it has in the past, in the presentational paratext conventions. Books have progressively enhanced and extended paratextual apparatus; features such as index, title page or punctuation. Newspapers, magazines, comics are also well known for paratext conventions. Privilege of screen delivery over paper delivery, or the opposite, has followed modification of genre paratext convention and genre reader expectations and accommodations.

  3. I’m of the mindset that it’s imperative that books be printed. Not for some idealogical “culture will die” dogma, but simply for creating a way to simply maintain the tradition. I’m a vinyl record enthusiast, and have recently loved what the industry did with bundling digital and physical together, in order to cater to both forms of distribution; the Enthusiast and the passive listener. It has done wonders for the resurgence of vinyl. I found an interesting article regarding the age old “book bin finds” and eBooks. Obviously there’s discounted books, but what’s the availability of recycling books throughout the community? i’d love to hear your thoughts.

    Really interesting article by the way. I’m happy to see that there is some sort of equilibrium being attained

  4. No. Paper is on a death sentence there is no doubt, and it’s a great thing.

    However I am sure that if there is a plateaux occurring or pending, it will be caused by the unnecessary encumbrances being foisted on eBook by some publishers. DRM, device lock-in, geo restrictions, format issues, high prices.

    I have believed for a long time that these issues will slow the transition to digital at some stage.

    But when these issues are cleared, and they will be cleared, the slippery slidy slope will really accelerate and paper will start on it’s final journey.

  5. People tend to forget that there is more to “books” than merely narrative text and that current ebook technology is inadequate/inappropriate to entire classes of books.
    Ebook reader penetration may only amount to 10% or so of the entire industry but in may categories and genre it runs well north of 30%.
    The adoption rate plateau is more likely to be due to the limitations of the technologies in use than any long-term “balance” being reached between pbooks and ebooks.
    Come the next generation of reading devices (whether dedicated or multifunction) and increased availability of rich format content we will likely see another period of explosive adoption growth.

  6. Ebook sales are flattening because many people who buy eReaders are subsequently shocked to find out how much ebooks cost.

    Since it seems that we don’t actually buy ebooks but instead only lease the right to read them under limited vendor controlled conditions people would rightly expect to be charged a rental price not a purchase price.

    But ebook publishers are basically just leasing a limited reading right in return for full retail price that is equivalent to a print book. This does not sit well with people and is hindering sales greatly.

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