A report from the Association of American Publishers reveals that e-books sales experienced “powerful continuing growth” as they colorfully put it, and paper books of all types dipped, compared to the same period (January-February) from last year. This isn’t surprising news, mainly because it isn’t news — and even if it were, it’s just history repeating itself; we’ve seen the same thing happen to music.
The parallels are clear, though the situations and reactions of the RIAA and AAP are somewhat different. Mostly in that the AAP and other booksellers aren’t being dragged kicking, screaming, and suing into the future, but are embracing it despite its implications.
The attempt to push through that big deal with Google seemed to indicate willingness on the part of the publishers to be part of the new order of things. It got struck down by the judge as opportunistic and overreaching on Google’s part (a decision I agree with, personally, though the agreement was very forward-thinking), but the fact remains that booksellers are actually excited about the future of publishing, the money to be made, the markets to be reached, and so on. The fact that a report like this can be published without any kind of bitter commentary on the decline of paper books is telling. If the RIAA had issued a report saying that digital sales were up 150% but physical sales were down 25%, it would be accompanied by a few poorly-reasoned shots at piracy.
Piracy will in fact be a part of the bookmaker’s lot soon, as well; indeed, it’s already a problem, according to some. With greater sales of e-readers comes greater piracy and the threat of phantasmal “lost income,” as the music industry loves to say, but of course you can’t lose what you never had, and their disingenuous calculations of piracy’s effects poison their credibility. I imagine we’ll see a few quixotic stands by the booksellers as well, and battles like the pedophilia controversy and the 1984 remote detonation will continue for a few years as standards get hammered out. Right now, for instance, Harper-Collins is making a fool of itself by attempting to rip off libraries.
Changing the container we get our words in is a natural change, and this level growth should continue, or even accelerate, over the next few years. A $99 Kindle, ad-supported or not, will push another few million of the things out the door, and technological advancements like flexible devices have yet to make their impact. And unlike the record industry, booksellers are itching to get their hands on these new product vectors.
The market won’t begin to settle down until e-readers are as popular as mobile phones and PCs, which I believe will happen despite the threat of tablets. Once the device class reaches a reasonable level of saturation, then the real battle begins. This growth is the storm before the storm.