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The state of eBooks

The summer is behind us and with it for me at least was the completion of several books. Real books n
The state of eBooks
By Connected Paths (Riaz Kanani) • Issue #78 • View online
The summer is behind us and with it for me at least was the completion of several books. Real books not ebooks. This week looks on publishing and the disruption that started more than a decade ago with the Kindle.
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I realised a few years ago that the number of books I read had been dropping fast. Mostly I was just buying the odd business eBook here and there.
Having reversed that fall in the last year or so, this year especially saw me reading more physical books than eBooks. There is no doubt I prefer reading real books but practicality means that eBooks usually wins out.
Several years ago, it felt like a foregone conclusion that eBooks would replace the physical book, but it hasn’t happened. In fact the opposite is true. Sales of physical books have been outpacing eBooks year on year.
Over the summer, the Publishers’ Association released some numbers on British publishers. Total book sales were up 4% in 2017 to £3.7bn. Physical book sales were up 5% last year to £3.1bn, while ebooks (excluding journals) were down 2% to £543m. Fiction e-book sales were down 11%.
The common suggestion is that the physical book is just better. Dissecting the data, it looks to me like just over half of readers are reading both physical and eBooks, with the majority of the remainder only reading physical eBooks.
The problem with domination
Amazon dominates eBook sales, with 87.9% of eBook sales in the UK and 83% in the US. The only competition barely comes from Apple who has less than 10% in both markets.
As a result though, there is little incentive for them to innovate either in hardware or software. Amazon will of course point to new releases etc, but I believe it is much slower than it could be.
On hardware, the Kindle was always the best ebook reading experience. Today though, ebooks are increasingly read on tablets and mobiles with sales of dedicated ebook devices pretty much flat over the past 5 years.
The result is a much poorer experience. The screen is not as great in sunlight and losing yourself in a book is much harder thanks to notifications on tablets and mobiles. Reading is not the focus of these devices and it will take a lot longer for them to evolve to be better reading devices as a result.
On software, Amazon finally integrated itself into Goodreads (who it bought in 2013) and started to build network effects on top of its ebook store. There is so much more opportunity here though. Reading books is not always a solo activity.
Clearly, companies still believe they can win against Amazon though. Walmart last month expanded its grocery partnership with Rakuten in Japan and launched new eBook readers and mobile apps undercutting Amazon. I would be surprised to see it make much of a dent in Amazon’s market share though.
New hardware?
2019 is going to be the year of the foldable screen. Samsung, Motorola and Huawei are just two of the companies set to announce this new technology. Apple filed a patent on it last year, though I suspect it will be a few more years at least before we see an Apple foldable phone.
Looking at the leaked specifications, most seem to be going down the route of making even smaller phones with a larger overall screen size. But that alone should make for a better reading experience on mobile at least.
We should find out more in October, when both Google and Samsung have major events.
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Connected Paths (Riaz Kanani)

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