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  • Published: Sep 27th, 2010
  • Category: Books
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Ebooks Don’t Cannibalize Print, People Do

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.

ebook device readers buy what is available in ebookstores

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.

This example doesn’t show ebooks cannibalizing print books — it shows something far more revealing.  Going back to the Brantley list, f you asked those on the list who consider themselves ebook consumers if they would buy Merchants of Culture in print form, the inevitable answer would be “probably not.”

This is a critical understanding of ebook customers. They invest in a device and platform to read books and therefore become dependent on those channels of ebook distribution for their content.  They don’t go into stores and are not very likely to shop in online environments that feature ebooks and print books.  Ebookstores on ebook reading devices sell only ebooks. Print is not part of the experience.

I know this because ever since I became an ebook reader when the Kindle released, I have steadily lessened the number of print titles I buy or read down to nearly zero. In fact, at my first Bloomsbury sales conference a couple of weeks ago I gave two examples to illustrate this point.

The first example was when David Young of Hachette gave me a copy of a great novel, The Unnamed.  I took the book home and started reading it that night – but in the morning it stayed at my bedside when I commuted to work. That night I read a bit more, and then left the book behind again. This time, however, I wanted to read on my commute so I whipped out my trusty Kindle and quickly bought the ebook.

The second example was quite similar. I was in Bloomsbury CEO Nigel Newton’s office and he handed me a copy of our Booker Prize shortlisted work The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson. I took the book with me to the US, but it flew in my luggage. I purchased the ebook just before I left so I could read it on the plane without having to schlep around a hardcover book.

I was given two free print books and I wound up purchasing them on my Kindle anyway!

Why did I do this?  Because ever since I started using a dedicated ereading device and platform I have found the convenience of having all the books I am reading and want to read all in one device far more convenient than toting around one print book at a time. In fact with the Kindle platform, I can read on my MacBook Pro, Kindle, iPhone, iPad, or Blackberry. I read on these devices when I have spare moments, when I travel, when I am in the doctor’s office waiting room, when I don’t want to think about work for 30 minutes and I want to escape. And since they all synchronize to the cloud, I am always exactly where I left off on any device I want to use.

As a result, I read and purchase far more books than I ever have before (save when I was in college) because I now have my books —and the ability to get most any book I want — at all times and in all places. And because I am an ebook reader, I shop for virtually all of my reading in ebookstores.

Therein lies the rub. The most important lesson I can convey to book publishing professionals is that they must understand that those of us who have made the transition to ebooks, buy ebooks, not print books. Ebook reading device users don’t shop in bookstores and then decide what edition they want; ebook device readers buy what is available in ebookstores. Search an ebookstore for a title and if it doesn’t come up, it doesn’t exist – no matter how many versions are available in print.

Ebooks aren’t a better value, ebooks aren’t more attractive nor are they a threat to the print version of any immersive reading book. This isn’t the same as paperback versions vs hardcover – where the platform and convenience are the same – the timing and pricing are the key ingredients. Books that aren’t in ebook form are do not exist to ebook reading consumers. There is no cannibalization if in the mind of the buyer if there is no version available to them.

The good news is that the same Nielsen study shows a significant portion of the ereading market buys more ebooks than they did print books. Furthermore, the study also shows that 80% surveyed would never consider buying a dedicated ebook reading device. So in the end, the book-selling world may lose 25% or so of its print customers to ebooks, but those customers will likely buy more product than they would have if they didn’t use an ereader.

Publishers must face the vibrant and growing market of ebooks with a view that their print runs and print sell-through have been and will continue to be downwardly affected by the loss of consumers to ebook reading devices. However, this isn’t cannibalization, it’s an opportunity for market expansion by feeding ereading consumers more of what they want to find.

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