Charlie Stross has posted another installment of his “Common Misconceptions about Publishing” series, this one focusing squarely on e-books. He looks back to a 2007 essay, “Why the commercial e-book market is broken” (which we covered here and here), and talks about what has changed since then and what the e-book market might look like in the future.

Stross’s original essay concluded that, at the time, e-books and e-book readers simply cost too much to be a threat to paper books’ market share, and the “threat” posed by e-book piracy was overblown largely because relatively few people read e-books at all compared to publishing’s overall audience.

Of course, since 2007 first the Kindle and then the iPad have come along to change things.

The new post is long and wide-ranging, and hard to summarize briefly. Stross covers the misconception that physical manufacturing costs make up a large proportion of the price of a book, and the wide variety of platforms (and the stupidity of associated DRM). He talks about the sudden surge in growth that e-book sales have experienced in the last year, and the implications of the iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad putting e-book readers in the hands of as many as 70 million people.

A "market" where no platform has more than a million users is pretty much useless from a publisher’s point of view. But a single market with 70 million possible consumers is something else again. And in anticipation of such a market emerging, ebooks are already rocketing up the publishers’ priorities.

Stross makes the prediction that e-books are going to kill not the paper book as a whole, but the mass-market paperback distribution channel, in which unsold books have the covers ripped off and returned in exchange for a refund while the book itself is destroyed. Since e-books don’t need to be stripped or returned because they aren’t “printed” until they’re ordered, they can save a lot of money (and trees).

Mass market-sized paperbacks will still be around, says Stross, but there will be fewer of them and they will be treated like trade paperbacks and hardcovers—returned in their entirety for refunds, rather than just the covers.

Stross makes some fascinating predictions for the future of e-books and the publishing industry, and his post is well worth checking out. I look forward to seeing if things really do shake out the way he expects they will.


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