Is it all about e-books?
07.12.07 | Liz Bury
At The Bookseller's first round table lunch, on the topic of e-books, it was a challenge to keep everybody speaking to the same question at the same time. Maybe I just wasn't being bossy enough. Or maybe it's because this is still a very young market, and so any discussion around it is fluid, flying off at tangents in every direction.
With e-books presenting such an unpredictable future, one way of thinking is: try something and see if it works. There are certainly those who can make gains from e-books by acting fast and smart—and they are not necessarily existing booksellers.
So there is nervousness in some quarters of the traditional book trade about what might be lost. Although no-one made a definite prediction about size of the future e-books market, the consensus around the table was that it could be anything up to 10% of current book sales. So based on Nielsen BookScan's TCM figure of £1.7bn for 2006, that puts the potential e-book market at £1.7m. Whether these e-book sales will be incremental to existing sales is another unknown.
Consumer reference is the category thought most likely to go digital, and soonest.
Narrative non-fiction is hard to call. Trade fiction is expected to be most resilient in the face of digital editions. Unless it's series romance--digital distribution is supposedly perfect for those with a penchant for swooning heroines and swashbuckling heroes. But really, who can tell?
Let's say the worst case scenario is that 10% of trade sales are siphoned off from the existing market by those selling digital reference and other digi-friendly content. It may not be publishers that lose out: they will still supply the content and may sell it themselves, off an author's website, for example. But how will traditional booksellers make up for the lost sales? Right now, none of them is taking advantage of the opportunity the new market presents.
Dig a little deeper, however, and this is not only a question about digitisation of book content. It's also about the changing face of retailing in Britain. Why trek out to the shops if you can buy what you need online—in print or as an e-book? The British Retail Consortium predicts that 15% of all Christmas-related purchases will be made online this year, compared to 13% in 2006.
E-books do pose a threat to bookshops' revenues, but right now online retail is the bigger threat—and opportunity.