A cursory look at the Kindle Top 100 will tell you that all the action is in Adult fiction. This is especially true for self-published work, where a non-fiction or children’s/YA hit is a rare beast.
This was borne out in a recently released Bowker survey covering the last quarter of 2010. That showed e-books as having captured a share of the adult fiction market that was three times larger than the respective share of the children’s/YA market and more than twice as large as that of non-fiction.
That in itself poses more questions than answers, but there is an obvious conclusion: this first big wave of new e-reader owners are fiction fans.
There is, of course, another side to that coin. Neilsen Bookscan, which covers approximately 70% of all print sales (and thus is a far fuller picture of the print market than the monthly AAP figures) have recorded a huge drop – again – for print.
In the first half of 2011, print (units sold) dropped 10%. But if you drill down on the figures, the fate of adult fiction becomes stark: down 25.7%. That is a huge drop in six months. Mass market paperback sales are being eviscerated by e-books, but no category seems safe: trade paperpack was down 6.8% and hardcover was down 10%.
This tallies up with the monthly AAP figures which have showed huge drops in mass market paperbacks in the first four months of 2011 (and they measure by revenue rather than units sold).
To look at it from a further angle, we also now know that Amazon have been selling more e-books (in terms of volume) than all print categories combined since the start of April. Amazon tends to lead the market in this regard, so it seems certain that poor print numbers will only continue.
As publishers continue to scramble to digitize their backlists, and chain stores clear floor space for toys and games and e-reader displays, it seems that independent bookstores are the last real bastion for trade print.
These numbers will only add to their hurt, but there was a piece of news yesterday which might give them a glimmer of hope, but only if they are willing to embrace the digital future rather than shun it, and if they don’t forget where their strengths lie.
The South Korean consumer electronics company iRiver has launched the first e-reader to be integrated with the Google e-books platform.
The iRiver Story HD will have wifi, a 6″ e-Ink screen, a QWERTY keyboard, and will retail for the same price as the Kindle, $139.99. It goes on sale this Sunday, at Target.
It was widely, and erroneously, reported as a “Google branded” device. This isn’t true. Google don’t have a horse in this race. They’re offering free, branded jockeys.
As with smartphones, Google aren’t in the device manufacturing business. They supply a free platform for any e-reader manufacturer to use, as long as they tie the device to the Google ebookstore.
In other words, we will be seeing plenty more e-readers, from a wide variety of companies, all using the Google platform, and all tied to the Google ebookstore.
What has this got to do with independent bookstores? Well, at the end of last year, Google partnered with the American Booksellers Association (ABA), allowing independent bookstores to have their own customized e-store, powered by Google.
While two hundred or so independent bookstores signed up, most haven’t. The reasons for their reluctance are many and varied (and understandable), but now that there is a device on the market which is tied to the Google ebookstore (with many more to follow), they may revisit their objections.
As for the e-reader itself, it seems like a bit of a retrograde step. It has no touchscreen, or color, so they are already popular devices out there (many cheaper) with better specifications.
However, this isn’t about this e-reader. The first Android phones weren’t exactly game-changers. What catapulted Google to significant market share in smartphones was the ability of any manufacturer to use their platform.
Could the same happen with e-books? I’m not so sure. Google has a tiny, single digit, percentage of the e-book market. While they have the largest selection of free e-books (over 2 million public domain titles, thanks to their controversial scanning program), their paid selection lags far behind Amazon or Barnes & Noble.
In addition, their store won’t be winning over competitor’s customers. It’s not the most fun to navigate around. When you contrast it with something like Google+, it’s quite clear that they haven’t brought their “A” game, not yet at least.
We all know that Google have the resources to build something better. Maybe they are waiting for the Google Books Settlement to be finally, you know, settled. Once that is sorted out, they will be able to integrate their store into search in a much more meaningful way (don’t forget those 15 million books they have scanned).
So, while I wouldn’t count Google out of the race just yet, I don’t see them being a significant player in the short-term.
But what about the independent bookstores that have made the leap to e-books? How are they faring?
I’ve been confused by their approach. Essentially most stores have a simple shopfront, with some recommended titles, and then a search box which can access all of the near 3 million books in the Google ebookstore.
This, to me, runs counter to what an independent bookstore is about. They generally have higher prices, for a number of reasons, but the customers who shop there aren’t motivated by price. They go there for the service, the handselling, and, yes, the curated selection, .
However, none of this is being replicated online. They have just thrown the doors of their e-bookstore open to all 3 million titles. This, I think, is a mistake.
While normally I would argue that the store with the biggest selection wins, independent bookstores must know that they can’t beat Amazon at their own game.
Customers who favor price, convenience, and a larger selection (which I think make up the vast majority), won’t be won over to an independent bookstore’s e-shop.
However, that’s not all customers, and there’s plenty of money in the margins. Independent bookstores should focus on their strengths. They should curate the selection of e-books that they offer, so that customers know that this book has been “approved” by a bookseller whose taste they trust.
Some may think I’m advocating the very same position that the gatekeepers do, i.e. that readers want someone to curate the selection of books for them, that readers want some kind of seal of approval (like that a book has come from a traditional publishing house which vets submissions).
That’s not what I’m saying. What I am saying is that there is a minority of readers that feel this way, and those are the customers that independent bookstores should be targeting with their e-offerings.
It shouldn’t be too hard to target them, they are the readers that used to shop in their stores.
Disclaimer: I’m a former employee of (and shareholder in) Google. I no longer own shares in the company, or have ties of any kind.