Things To Think About As The Digital Book Revolution Gains Global Steam

This post, by Mike Shatzkin, originally appeared on The Shatzkin Files on 8/27/12.

The switchover from reading print to reading on screens, with the companion effect that increasingly the purchase of books is done online rather than in stores, is far advanced in the English-speaking world and especially so in the United States. In the past 12 months, the UK has begun to resemble the US market in this way. 

With all due respect to everbody else, the primary driver of this change has been the efforts of Amazon.com. They made the online selling of print books work in the US and then provided the critical catalyst — the Kindle — to make ebooks happen. Other players — Barnes & Noble and Kobo with their devices and the publishers with their sales policies — have crafted their strategies primarily in response to Amazon. They are participants building out a market that Amazon first proved existed.

The impact of digital change in the US and UK markets has been both profound and severe. Bookstore shelf space has been lost at a rapid pace. (This has long struck me as the key metric to watch to predict industry change.) I have seen no estimates to quantify this, but with Borders gone and Barnes & Noble devoting much less space to books than it once did and the disappearance of many independents, it seems apparent that half of the bookstore shelves that were available in the US in 2007 are gone by now. The book trade in Britain is moving in a similar direction.

The publishers are well aware that their ecosystem has changed and that they have to change too. Many have changed their workflows so that ebooks and print books can be outputs from the same development process. They are all seeking new ways to interact directly with readers, which no general trade publisher would have considered doing ten years ago. They are learning about how to deliver their digital products with better metadata. They are learning to optimize that metadata for search. They’re trying to build vertical communities — or at least develop vertical audience reach — and developing new services and products to sell to the customers that they attract with their books. They’re recognizing that digital distribution newly empowers authors and responding by trying to make the experience of working with them more author-friendly.

And they’re recognizing that the world is getting smaller: that their outputs can reach readers outside their home market much more readily than ever before. That recognition is particularly useful to American and British publishers because English is the world’s leading second language, with potential customers for English language books in every country in the world.

Change has come much more slowly in non-English markets. There are many reasons for that. One is that the US and Britain have exceptional — if not unique — marketplace rules that encourage retailers to compete for book sales using pricing as a tool (or, if you prefer, as a weapon). Amazon used deep discounting to solidify its position in the late 1990s when it was building its print-selling hegemony and then again to create locked-in ebook customers for the Kindle when it launched in 2007.

 

 

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