Peter Kafka

Recent Posts by Peter Kafka

E-books Are Booming, and Still Sort of Small

No surprise to anyone who reads a site like this one: Sales of e-books are booming.

But just like most media formats, the book market is still a long way from converting completely to digital: Last year, print accounted for 85 percent of the publishing industry’s general interest sales.

That number comes from the new BookStats survey, sponsored by two industry groups. It finds that Amazon and other digital distributors are taking an increasing chunk of the market, and that sales of “trade” e-books — basically, everything except educational and professional texts — doubled in the last year.

That helped keep the publishing business more or less flat in 2011, even as print sales dropped off. Net publisher revenue for trade books increased 0.5 percent, to $13.97 billion, with e-books accounting for $2.1 billion of that. Meanwhile, overall net revenue dropped 2.5 percent, to $27.2 billion.

That’s the kind of year executives in the newspaper and music business would have loved to have over the last decade. Those industries have seen their analog businesses drop off a cliff, and have spent a long time waiting for digital revenue streams to replace them. It took until 2011, for instance, for digital music sales to (barely) top CD sales in the U.S.

But book publishers aren’t solely concerned with digital revenue — they’re also concerned about digital distribution, and who will control it. One of the big lessons media companies have taken from the music industry’s collapse is that they don’t want a single player — in the case of music, that would be Apple’s iTunes — with a lock on the digital market.

That’s what led the publishers to push for “agency” pricing, where they could set the sale price for their books — and, presumably, lessen Amazon’s dominance in the e-book market by creating equal footing for all digital retailers. And that’s what has led to the federal antitrust charges against Apple and the industry’s biggest publishers.

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Just as the atom bomb was the weapon that was supposed to render war obsolete, the Internet seems like capitalism’s ultimate feat of self-destructive genius, an economic doomsday device rendering it impossible for anyone to ever make a profit off anything again. It’s especially hopeless for those whose work is easily digitized and accessed free of charge.

— Author Tim Kreider on not getting paid for one’s work