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A few years ago, some commentators (high on something or other, perhaps) were forecasting the death of the printed book, now some (often the same!) are forecasting the death of the e-book.

This is all the result of reports of declining sales of e-books in reports from the Association of American Publishers, home of the Big Four, i.e., the same publishers that negotiated agency terms with Amazon in order to lift the price of e-books to the same level as their printed books. And while their sales fell, the sales of Amazon-published and independently published e-books continued to rise.

AuthorEarning.com has been monitoring all of this for some time now, and its February 2017 report makes interesting reading. It shows, for example, that in the USA e-book sales are now 42% of all book sales, in the UK and Canada, 34%, and in Australia 28% – so much for the “death of the e-book” – in the USA and the UK that amounts to 1.5 e-books per year per head of population. In the USA total sales of e-books was 487,280,000 in the year to February 2017 giving a total sales value of $3,177,000. So perhaps the Big Four got things wrong and, seeking to preserve printed-book profits (on which, remember, they recover ALL the costs of production for both formats), in effect gave up on e-books.

Well, one of the Big Four, Hachette, seems to have realised that it got things wrong and has now bought the UK e-book publisher Bookoutre (set up, I believe by a former Hachette manager). Bookoutre sold about six million copies of e-books last year, mainly through Amazon and Philip Jones on the Bookseller site comments:

Bookouture has profited from an e-book market many in the trade have misread. Amazon’s strong growth in Kindle sales from 2009 onwards led some to believe that digital sales would overtake and ultimately kill off print book sales; the threat level was later downgraded to trade titles, then to commercial books, and then finally to commercial fiction. But the big publisher strategies are still largely predicated on those early predictions, with agency pricing (fixed pricing for e-books) introduced first to stave off the likelihood of a print’s sudden collapse, and secondly to curb Amazon’s run-away growth. The strategy is to price e-books in line with their print equivalents so that the digital format does not gain a competitive advantage over what is for the major publishers the important physical market. However, such a rigid approach fails to take into account that some titles and lots of e-books appear to work better at lower prices; in short that the Kindle store is not the same as the physical book market. Rather than declining, the e-book market has splintered away from its print echo.

And goes on to say, “In buying a fast-growing e-book specialist Hachette is clearly trying to plug the gap it helped to create”. Can we expect similar acquisitions from the other big publishers? I expect we can, since, if they continue with their present strategy, they are going to find that the growth in e-book sales is not going to be to their benefit.

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