This post, by Mike Shatzkin, originally appeared on the Idea Logical Company blog on 2/5/11.
In a recent post, I contemplated the developing ebook markets around the world, and particularly in Europe, and observed that ten years or more of digitization efforts in the English-speaking world would have a sizeable impact on the ebook markets in other language countries. When I wrote about this earlier, it was to enumerate the challenge I think publishers in other languages should expect to see arising in their own local markets.
Today I want to view that same circumstance from the opposite perspective and consider the opportunity from the standpoint of the English-language publishers, Indeed, it is possible that it is so substantial that it will postpone Armageddon for large general trade houses, whose challenges from the inevitable decline of bookstores have concerned me for several years and which has been the subject or subtext of many posts on this blog.
I want to describe an opportunity which is devilishly difficult to size precisely. We want to know how many candidates to read books in English are in the US, in the rest of the English-speaking countries, and then in the non-English countries. Wikipedia says the world contains 914 million English speakers, of which 251 million are in the US, 232 million in India, and 168 million in the non-English countries in Europe. But that data has provenance of no consistent timing, and the US data, for example, is from the 2000 census.
One source I talked to recently who holds a statistics-oriented job and who has reason to know, insists the world has 600 million native English speakers and 1.4 billion English speakers in other countries. If that were true, the US would have less than a sixth of the total within its boundaries.
The US, by almost anybody’s measure, contains fewer than a third of the world’s English-speaking people. And everybody seems to measure “English- speaking”, not “English-literate.” But the English-literate market in non-English countries, whatever it may be today or when it was measured, is almost certainly growing faster than the native markets are. So if we accept the premise that ebooks ultimately put these potential ebook readers within reach of publishers in America (and Britain, Canada, Australia, and other English-speaking countries, of course), we are watching the access roads being built to a customer base that could double or more what has really been available previously.