To arrive at a clearer view of
how global ebook markets
will develop, we need to
engage more closely with
around the world, writes
Simon Littlewood. There
was a significant industry
moment at the Frankfurt
Book Fair in 2013. Markus
Dohle, Chair of the newly-merged Penguin Random
House, addressed a seminar at which many of the world’s
leading figures in trade publishing were present. Amongst
the things he said that afternoon that were worthy of
attention, one pronouncement stood out: “Printed books,”
he said, “will be with us, not in 10, 20, 50 or even 100
years’ time, printed books will always be with us”.
There were at least two noteworthy features in Dohle’s
statement, and both were about contrast. First, there was
his certainty: UK (and US) publishers’ strategy away-days
back in 2009 had included individuals’ estimates of the ebook
proportion of sales by 2014 that ranged from single-figure
percentages to 70%, and the only consistent features were
the sense of speculation and the wide range of disagreement.
Secondly, it represented a radical change from the emerging
industry consensus of only 18 months before, when such an
utterance would have been impossible. Against the backdrop
of the steep English-language ebook sales curves at that earlier
stage, the view–still speculative–was often expressed that the
days of the printed book might be numbered (though few
would say that number), with momentous consequences for
sustainable business models and the future of the industry.
The levelling-off of those ebook sales offers English-language
publishers a sense that the crystal ball has become less opaque,
and that the threat to business models is subsiding, whatever
the challenges presented by routes to market. However, they
also say that this plateau might be temporary, that there could
be another upward surge. But when, and provoked by what?
In a context, where the needle seems sometimes to be swinging
back towards printed books, some say that the most obvious
trigger for a new surge in ebooks would lie in non-English-speaking markets, where ebook take-up remains perplexingly
and stubbornly low. Their argument goes that “at some stage it
has to happen,” but little is adduced in support of this; it’s
hunch rather than conviction. But what this does raise is the
important, but hitherto impenetrable relationship, between
English-language ebook sales and those in the local language.
Here are the data. Against total English-language trade ebook
percentages of unit sales in the UK and international markets
overall of around 25%, the regional and country figures are
varied and often counterintuitive. Australia tracks at above 30%,
while New Zealand and South Africa are both above 20%.
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