Ebooks Don’t Cannibalize Print, People Do

This post, by Evan Schnittman, originally appeared on his Black Plastic Glasses site on 9/27/10.

Last week in The Bookseller, Philip Jones covered a seminar in the UK by Enders Analysis that presented data done as a part of a Nielsen BookScan report.  The article led with the following statement.

“The growth in e-book sales in genres such as romance and science-fiction is leading to a cannibalisation in sales of printed books, according to Nielsen BookScan data.”

This led to the inevitable debate on the Read2.0 listserv (also known as the Brantley List for the devoted followers of Mike Shatzkin). While there was little illumination in the ensuing voluminous discussion, there was an overall consensus that ebooks were indeed cannibalizing print books.

While I see the logic behind this understanding – I posit a slightly more nuanced definition of what is happening: Ebooks aren’t cannibalizing print books — consumers with ebook reading devices are, as a rule, no longer buying print books. Subtle? Yes, but from a commercial publishing point of view this is a crucial difference between seeing a direct correlation between ebooks and print books and understanding what happens to a customer when they make the switch to reading devices.

To wit, last week, on the very same listserv, there was discussion about a new book about the trade publishing industry entitled Merchants of Culture by Cambridge University professor and co-owner of Polity Press, John Thompson.  Unfortunately for John, the conversation quickly turned into a series of screed-like complaints about the lack of an ebook version. To most this was especially irritating as John had written and published a seminal work on ebook publishing called Books in the Digital Age.

I happened to see John the same day and I asked him why he didn’t have an ebook. He explained that this was not a strategic decision not to have an ebook — he is entirely happy to have it available in this format — but one driven solely by channel issues that are currently being negotiated and will soon be resolved.  I urged John to solve this ASAP because he was losing buyers every day the ebook wasn’t available. This is the real ebook tipping point evidence — lost customers due to the lack of an ebook.


Read the rest of the post on Evan Schnittman‘s Black Plastic Glasses.