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Given the parochialism of the press in the USA and the UK, every little variation in the sales of printed books and e-books is taken as a preliminary to some global catastrophe. Even when the statistics are, to say the least, incomplete, we get headlines like, “Printed books power back!”, “Collapse in e-book sales”, or similar hyperbole. What is happening in the rest of the world appears to be of no interest whatsoever to the journalists putting out this kind of nonsense. The winding up of Oyster, the e-book subscription service, widely touted as the “Netflicks for books”, is taken as indicating that the model will not work anywhere, in spite of the fact that what happened is that the founders and CEO of Oyster, along with some of their staff got a better offer from Google and decided to wrap things up – nothing whatsoever to do with a failure of their business plan (since no one knows what that was, in any event, being commercially confidential). The fact is that there is not a single market for e-books that can be measured by the sales of AAP publishers in the USA. Different countries and different languages are experiencing different trends and subscription services (including Scribd in the USA and the UK) seem to be doing very nicely, thank you.

Consider Germany, about which there have been a few news items over the past week. First, a report cited by Nate Hoffelder on the Digital Reader blog:

GfK has released some results from its survey of German consumers. It has found that in the first half 2015, an estimated 2.9 million Germans over the age of ten paid for an ebook. They spent a total of nearly 95 million euros. This represents an increase of 13 percent compared to the same period last year…

This follows on from an earlier report from Bitkom to the effect that

A quarter (25 percent) of Germans read digital books (e-books). This is an increase of one percentage point compared to last year. The share of e-book users in the book-reader population is as high as 33 percent. This is the result of a representative survey… among 2,325 people aged 14 and over. “E-books are now an integral part of the digital media world and reach a mass audience,” said Bitkom vice-president Achim Berg in advance of the Frankfurt Book Fair. Here this market is still far from having exhausted its potential. According to the survey, 35 percent to those who currently do not read digital books, imagine doing so in the future.

and there’s an interesting bit about the different age groups:

According to the survey results e-books are almost equally popular across the various age groups. 32 percent of 14- to 29-year-olds and 30 percent of 30- to 49-year-olds read e-books. Among 50- to 64-year-olds it is 28 percent. Only in the age group from 65 years is the use 11 per cent, well below the average.

Hoffelder notes that the spend on e-books in Germany, while significant at 95 million Euros, compares with the $730 million spent on e-books in the USA for the first half of 2015 – and that is only the spend reported by the AAP which accounts for only half of the publishers in the USA, so, crudely scaling up, with lots of unwarranted assumptions, the actual annual spend could be something in the order of $2 billion. That doesn’t seem too bad for a “collapsing” e-book market 🙂

In a report on the Frankfurt Book Fair, the CEO of the German subscription service, Skoobe, commented:

Our business model is sound and sustainable. The catalogue is growing, and all partners who have signed with us since the start are still on board. Publishers are growing their title base constantly and are establishing strategies on how best to use the potential of subscription services. Skoobe is proving to be a great opportunity to market titles, especially from the backlist, and new authors alongside bestsellers and new releases. As the overall quality of the catalogue is very high, customers are eager to discover new authors and genres. Some 80% of our customers rate the quality of our book catalogue with “very good” and more than 80% have recommended books that they have read through the service to others.

All of this leaves aside the continuing growth of e-book use in education, and particularly in higher education, and the growth in the developing world. So, next time you see reports of the collapsing e-book market, ask, “Where is this going on?” and “Show me the numbers”.

My bet is that e-books, in their evolving form, are here to stay, although, as I have said before, I don’t expect them to take over from printed books any time soon and that for the consumer market, things are likely to settle down to approximately the Pareto distribution of 80% printed and 20% electronic.