Mike Shatzkin has a very interesting article in his Shatzkin files, in which he explores the benefits of e-book publishing for the publisher’s backlist and foreign sales. He refers to the debate generated by the NY Times article on the decline of e-book sales and notes that it refers to sales in the USA and that what sales are generated by AAP publishers outside of the USA is not known. A small counterbalance to the NY Times article comes from the UK publishers who, according to an article in the Guardian, on Waterstone’s decision to stop selling the Kindle, report continuing slight (1%) increase in sales in 2014 over 2015.
Shatzkin notes that it is actually very difficult to figure out what is going on since the data are so fragmentary and flawed. In the E-books Research Group we are interested mainly in what is happening in Sweden, where e-book sales are very low, at about 1% or 2% of total sales – but even here we cannot be sure, since the report comes from the Svenska Förläggareföreningen (SvF) (Swedish Publishers’ Association) and does not include sales of companies that belong to the other association, the Nordiska Oberoende Förlags Förening (NOFF). In spite of its name, NOFF’s members are all from Sweden. This omission is significant, as the SFF reports about 5,000 e-books published in Sweden, whereas our survey of both associations gives us a figure of about 10,000 titles – not an insignificant difference!
Two recent developments by Bonnier, the biggest publishing company in Sweden (and also the second biggest in Germany and with a publishing presence in the USA) are of interest: first, they launched Type & Tell, a self-publishing channel for either printed books or e-books, and more recently they have announced the launch of an e-book subscription service on the lines of Scribd, but one that will offer access to recently published books as well as to the backlist. These two developments may kickstart the sale of e-books in Sweden and the second may have an impact on the lending of e-books through the public library system.
In the course of a couple of interviews with publishers at the recent Gothenburg Book Fair, we picked up hints that the major publishers are not particularly committed to e-book production but, as sales of printed books decline, as they have been doing (albeit slightly) in recent years, e-book production may offer another income channel. Shatzkin’s comments are relevant here, since e-book sales of the backlist could be very helpful to publishers. Given Bonnier’s international presence (it is, for example, part owner of the major Norwegian publisher Cappelen Damm) expansion of its new subscription service to other Nordic countries and to Germany would be an obvious possibility. Bonnier also recently bought the Norwegian content marketing company Teft, jointly with the content agency, Spoon, and has also launched a “social shopping” channel, Stylista.no, with a focus on fashion, but no doubt expandable to other kinds of products – it is a short step from fashion per se to books about fashion, etc. With the continued absence of Amazon from the Swedish market, one has the feeling that Bonnier is poised to become the Amazon of the Nordic countries. Rumour has it that Amazon (which was said two years ago to be ready to open up in Sweden) is staying out it as a result of a deal with the major publishers – but that would be against the EU’s competition rules, so that can’t be true, can it?
It’s probably just a little too early to write off the e-book as a publishing phenomenon: I have never believed that the e-book would replace the printed book and, increasingly, I suspect that a Pareto distribution will prevail, as it does in so many other walks of life, i.e., things will settle down at approximately 80% printed books sold and 20% e-books. Time will tell!