State of the (Ebook) Union: A Mid-Year Report

I got my first ebook reader, and started posting to Mobile Read and Teleread, just over five years ago. In the time since, I’ve seen the birth of the Kindle and Kobo, the fall of Fictionwise and Sony, the advent of agency pricing and geographical restrictions, and both publishers and authors try all sorts of things to try and gain some precious market share.
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Now, here we are in the latter half of 2012. I’m being considered for a senior writer role at TeleRead, and I’m working with my third editor here. I’m excited. These are exciting times. But … are they better times? Is the ereader marketplace better than it was five years ago? Have we solved some of the more pressing issues that have come up as the market has grown? How are we doing?
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Here are some trends, some issues, problems and questions I’ve written about over the last five years, and my thoughts on their current status. In no particular order…
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Device Quality | It’s better. Yay! The devices I’ve tested recently are smaller, faster, more feature-packed and store more books. And they are cheaper, too. I saw an Aluratek Libre on sale for less than $50 the other day. It’s not the best device out there, but it’s not the worst either, and having something at that price point makes e-reading accessible to people who might not have bought in at Sony Reader circa-2005 prices ($300).
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Device Diversity | Reading is becoming less device-specific. Yay to this too! What’s happened here is the advent of the reader app. No longer must you have a physical Kindle or Kobo to read on. You can download an app to your phone, your tablet, your whatever, and read it there. And you can synchronize between them, too. The fact that I can read a chapter on my iPod Touch while riding a bus–and then resume it later on my Kindle Touch, at home–is nothing short of miraculous to me.
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App Quality | With that said, app quality still leaves much to be desired. Why is it that on my hardware Kindle, I can highlight across multiple pages, but on my iPad app, I can’t? Why is it that I can’t sort my books into collections on the app the way I can on the device itself? And why has nobody yet come up with software that has decent parental controls, so I can keep a kid on my account without giving them unwitting access to my adult-content archived items?
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Book Selection | I’m giving the industry a C for this one, because it depends what you’re looking for. I think geographical restrictions are less of a barrier than they used to be. When you’re talking about a new-release best-seller, it’s been awhile since I’ve heard a hue and cry that people can’t buy it. But the library selection is terrible since three of the big publishers either won’t allow ebook lending, or they allow it under such onerous terms that the library I patronize most frequently won’t buy them. And the availability of non-English titles still seems to be rather low.
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Kobo | On that note, I do have to give the Kobo store props for their work promoting local content. I know the roll-out in Japan, now that Rakuten is running the show, has not been flawless. But they are the only ebook vendor that truly focuses on trying to customize their marketplace. I remember when they had a whole package one year for the Giller Prize nominees. They bundled the ones which were available into a special section, and worked with the publishers of the non-available books to actually create ebook editions for them. When the prize was announced, the winner was a book from a press so small that the brick-and-mortar bookstores almost immediately ran out of stock. But there was Kobo, with the only salable copies…
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Book quality | Sadly, we’re on a downhill slide, and it stuns me that publishers haven’t worked out a way to streamline this yet. I’ve written at length, on more than one occasion, about error-filled purchases. It isn’t getting better, and it’s not just the amateur indie guys I’m talking about here. (Ironically, as far as typos go, the indies tend to be better. That’s because the author has nobody on whom they can pass the buck, and if errors get found, they have the authority to fix them.) I’ve read almost 30 books this year, which is low for me. (I lost some reading time to falling in love this year!) And every single one of them has had errors bookmarked when I was done. That is appalling.
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Pricing | It’s gone up, up, up. And as a result, my spending has gone down, down, down. I track this stuff, so I can give you hard numbers. My highest year ever was about $1,300 (I panicked, pre-agency pricing, that prices would go up, so I went on a binge). This year? I’m well under $200, and still have $25 left in Amazon credit to cover occasional Kindle deals-of-the-day from now until Christmas. The issue for me is that I still have so many unread books in my library. I have two series I devoutly follow, and other than that, it’s all impulse buys. So if a new book comes out and it’s $14.99, I’ll just skip right on over it without even looking at what it is. I might wishlist it if it comes highly recommended, but at those prices, I figure I should wait to do any more spending until I finish what I have already. And that is not likely to happen anytime soon! So those high-priced books just sit there because the freebies, indie finds and deals-of-the-day keep that virtual TBR pile growing ever higher…
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Author roles | This has been interesting to me. I feel that authors, even bigger-name ones, are becoming more of an entity than they used to be. You can write to them, and they write back. They have blogs, and you can comment on them. Many of them have regained the rights to their published backlists and are re-releasing books themselves. I think authors who dislike this sort of engagement will find it increasingly difficult to build market share. But I think authors who view this as a business–and who their book as a product, and not as a pet–can find themselves building an audience and reaching more readers than they ever could before.
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The Marketplace | Wow, does it change fast! It used to be that Fictionwise was the store, and now they’re a broken shell of what they used to be. It used to be that you read on a hacked Palm device, or you were a fancy rich person who could afford a cutting-edge, niche Sony Reader. Now, it’s Amazon versus everyone else. You can’t assume that what works now will keep working, either. Amazon had better not get complacent! If something better comes along, it comes along, and you either roll with it and take advantage, or you fall behind.
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Indies | Which leads me to the rise of the indie. Who could have predicted that, five years ago? What’s happened is that the bloated and slow-moving publishing industry didn’t adapt fast enough (and still isn’t!), so alternative distribution channels (Smashwords, KDP and so on) rose to fill the gap. By the time Big Pub caught on to the demand, stores like Amazon had years to gain market over them. Whoops! So now, we have Konrath making the big bucks off $2 thrillers while midlisters who are still with Big Pub languish on people’s wishlists at the $15 price point…
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So, anything I missed? Let’s keep the discussion going in the comments! As Teleread’s readership continues to grow under the leadership of our new editor, Dan, I hope this post can serve as a starting point for helping new readers get up to speed!
About Joanna Cabot (1593 Articles)
"I’m a journalist, a teacher and an e-book fiend. I work as a French teacher at a K-3 private school. I use drama, music, puppets, props and all manner of tech in my job, and I love it. I enjoy moving between all the classes and having a relationship with each child in the school. Kids are hilarious, and I enjoy watching them grow and learn. My current device of choice for reading is my Amazon Kindle Touch, but I have owned or used devices by Sony, Kobo, Aluratek and others. I also read on my tablet devices using the Kindle app, and I enjoy synching between them, so that I’m always up to date no matter where I am or what I have with me."

6 Comments on State of the (Ebook) Union: A Mid-Year Report

  1. Fr. Ignatius // August 3, 2012 at 9:42 am //

    What about DRM? Even some big publishers have released non-DRM ebooks. I think this is a great trend. Interesting to note, though…that if you look on the iBookstore at eBooks that have gone non-DRM, it is always located in the notes…but you have to press “More” to see that this book that you are looking at is DRM Free. Interesting.

  2. A few comments:

    Geographical restrictions:
    People who are a bit computer savvy (like me, a happy Nook owner in the Netherlands) circumvent the geographical restrictions, others have probably just given up on US ebooks that are not available for their country.

    Parental restrictions for kids that share your account:
    The official reason for sharing an account (at least the reason bookstores still get away with this) is for one person reading his/her books on multiple devices.
    If ebookstores would make it easier to share an account with different people, they would probalby get into a lot of trouble with the publishers. Publishers hate people sharing books. They want everyone to buy their own copy. I do not think current ebook licenses would even legally allow this for DRM ebooks.

    Those were the days! No geographical restrictions. 100% rebates on bestsellers. Who would have thought a few years later it would all be over.
    Perhaps when the agency model ends for three publishers in September B&N will give Fictionwise a new chance?

    With the end of the agency model for three publishers in September things will get exiting again. I expect that at the end of this year price levels for ebooks will look a lot different from what they are now. After almost 2 years stagnation in the ebook market because of the agency model, the ebook market will start to develop and change again.

  3. Always interesting thougths, Joanna. Congrats on the Sr. Writer gig.

    I think “prices up-up-up” is wrong, though. I see prices down-down-down. I wonder if your drop from $1300 to $300 might be a result of lower rather than higher prices. With so many books free, some readers find they aren’t paying anything. Where this leaves authors, of course, is an interesting question.

    Agree with the wonderful improvements in technology. Just a few years ago, my eBookWise was cool. Now it’s retired.

    Wearing your Canadian hat, you see Kobo as critical. I’m seeing Amazon as the 500 pound gorilla. Not that I don’t like Amazon… but they are huge and dominant. Especially in the US of course, but increasingly worldwide.

    You didn’t mention Apple but I’m seeing them as increasingly critical players in the game. I worry about an Apple/Amazon duopoly.

    Anyway, thanks for your thoughts.

    Rob Preece, Publisher

  4. Geert: the problem with kids is that they don’t have credit cards! So if you want your kid to have an Amazon account and be able to use it independently without you looking over their shoulder all the time, you have to either set one up just for them and fund it with gift cards (in which case, you can’t screen their purchases first) or attach them to your own account (in which case, they’ll have access to everything you buy for you, as well). We really need a way to associate a child account with a parent one so that kids can keep their books separate, but parents can screen and pay for purchases (and then eventually ’emancipate’ the account and release it to their older kid).

    Rob: I agree that Kobo is definitely more of a factor to the non-American :) But I don’t see Apple’s iBooks platform as really being a dominator. I thinkt he big drawback for Apple is that you can’t synchronize between devices the way you can with Kobo and Amazon. I can read my Kindle books on my phone, on my iPod, on my iPad, on my hardware device and so on. Apple can’t compete with that yet. And I think it’s a killer feature.

  5. Great article. I also loved Fictionwise until it went from hardly any geographic restrictions to almost all.

  6. Name (required) // August 4, 2012 at 3:15 am //

    A little nitpick:
    The original Sony PRS-500 sold for $350, not $300 as you write, when it came to market. I know. I bought one. Ouch! – That price hurt, because I am not from USA or Western Europe.

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