Nowadays, the ebook has a reputation for technological conservatism - so it is easy to forget that there was significant anticipation for the Kindle’s arrival ten years ago.
In a 2009 editorial, The Bookseller declared the device was “a giant leap for all”. The Kindle was frequently compared to the iPod’s transformative effect on the music industry. No wonder - the ebook format promised several advantages. Users could adjust typographic settings for improved accessibility; there was an increased level of portability; and the move to digital distribution promised the ability to purchase publishers’ extensive back catalogues.
But despite the early promise of the ebook, many are questioning whether it has lived up to these expectations. In recent years, the ebook has faced significant backlash amid reports of declining sales in trade publishing. The Publishing Association Yearbook 2016 noted a 17% slump in the sale of consumer ebooks while physical book revenue increased by 8%. Over the last couple of years, audiobooks have replaced ebooks as digital publishing’s critical darling on the back of a rapid increase in revenue. In this climate, several commentators have asked “how ebooks lost their shine.”
However, few of them offer more than woolly opinions. On the surface, the narrative of the ebook’s demise may appeal to bibliophiles who cherish print - but the reality behind ebooks’ recent plateau is more complex.
The Publishing Association’s data is still adjusting to new publishing models. Just as the music industry needed to adapt to the rise of streaming, initiatives such as Amazon Charts are reacting to the rise of ebook subscription services and audio/ebook hybrids that don’t map to traditional metrics of publishing success.
The ‘ebook plateau’ argument also ignores emergent sectors of digital-only sales, including self-publishing, where new genres drive a vibrant and divergent market. Amazon facilitates most self-publishing sales, and the company steadfastly refuses to provide sales data for books published exclusively on the Kindle. So a potential increase in sales for emergent digital-only genres is hidden by the headlines about traditional publishers.
The fall in revenue from ebooks is a direct consequence of legacy publishers’ prioritization of print sales at the expense of digital books. The Kindle’s North American launch in 2007 marketed new ebook titles at $9.99, a discount of at least $10 on the hardback equivalent. This approach was unsustainable, but it set readers’ expectations for the cost of ebooks. Agency ebook pricing has brought ebook prices closer to print, but at the cost of the perceived value of digital publications. As expectations of an ebook’s value were lowered by the initial discounting, the recent resurgence in print sales cannibalizes ebook’s growth.
There have been plenty of discussions around the ‘ebook plateau,’ but the technological challenges for ebooks go under-acknowledged despite their precarity. Both EPUB and the Kindle’s proprietary format are based on 20+ year old technology in an age of rapid technological obsolescence. The recent merger of the Independent Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF, the organization maintaining the EPUB format) and World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) may prove to be a pivotal moment in digital publishing history and poses a significant challenge to the ebook format.
W3C will continue supporting EPUB, but the non-profit is also piloting Portable Web Publications (PWP), a self-described “vision for the future of digital publishing based on a fully native representation of documents within the Open Web Platform.” In other words, PWP moves ebook reading out of dedicated apps and into native web browsers. This has many advantages, but how will books cope in the complex attention economy of web browsing? Given the scope of the format, digital books will become just another type of publication to use PWP and as a consequence, the standard will not just serve the needs of publishers, a core design element of EPUB despite its limitations.
If PWP supersedes EPUB, Amazon will be the primary company to maintain an ebook format, as it is invested in proprietary specifications and continues to release updates for Kindle Format 8 (KF8). Amazon’s resistance to EPUB may have been prescient if PWP replaces EPUB as the industry standard, but this relies on Amazon itself maintaining interest in the Kindle. It is still possible to read ebooks on a first-generation Kindle, a feat unthinkable for platforms such as the iPhone or videogame consoles, but elsewhere there is evidence that Amazon’s interests are turning away from books to a range of other ventures not limited to videogame streaming, winning Emmys, grocery shopping, cloud computing, and the Internet of Things. Their tablet line is now just ‘the Fire,’ having dropped the Kindle moniker in 2014. The Kindle brand, and books, are now just one small part of the Amazon juggernaut.
For the moment, reports of the ebook’s death are exaggerated. If the disinterest of Amazon and resistance from the book trade continue, however, there is a chance that the ebook is killed off - in my view, prematurely. Publishers should see ebooks as complementary to print rather than as competition. Letting the ebook die may benefit print sales in the short-term, but the wider transition to digital media consumption presents a longer-term threat. Books need to remain visible and distinct from other genres of writing in the competition for attention. Publishers may wish to build upon the success of ebook/audiobook bundling to build a sustainable future for the ebook.