The Digital Zone at this year’s London Book Fair was more than double the size of its 2009 debut, as was its program, which hosted a full slate of 20-minute pitches and prognostications from vendors. But it was U.K.-based digital services provider IBS Bookmasters that came up with perhaps the most clever way to “distill” publishers thoughts on the digital future. With its booth located in an ideal spot, (right behind the Russia Focus theater and the Digital Zone stage) IBS offered a selection of fine single malt scotches each afternoon, and invited publishers to sample them, and answer a few questions. “They answered before we gave them the Scotch,” quipped IBS Bookmasters’ Claire Peel about the informal poll, and, indeed, the poll’s main findings were a pretty sober reflection of what was expressed throughout the fair: Nearly 80% of publishers expect e-book sales to surpass physical books within 15 years. Of that number, 32% expect e-book sales to overtake print sales within 10 years and 5% within five years. On the other hand, 18% said that e-book sales will never surpass physical book sales.
Sure, it might have been the Scotch talking, but those responses may have even been a little conservative. At the CEO’s Panel on Tuesday, HarperCollins’ CEO Brian Murray noted that e-book sales have already overtaken print in some cases. Murray said the numbers in the U.S. now show that some books sell over 50% in e-book format in the first few months of publication. “That is a watershed to me,” Murray, said. “That means we are beyond the tipping point in some genres, and that has great implications for our overall business.” Of course, e-book numbers are still a small part of overall publishers revenues. But those revenues are growing rapidly, and with new digital opportunities, and with the reading device market just getting ramped up in Europe, the pace of change is almost sure to accelerate.
Other notable takeaways from the Whiskey poll: 63% of publishers said the current economic climate is no longer a hindrance to investment in new technology, up from 41%. That is especially good news for the survey’s host, IBS Bookmasters, which is rolling out new digital tools and services, as it suggests “confidence may be returning” to a publishing industry wracked by recession. “The belief among publishers that e-book sales are set to increase dramatically over the next 10 years or so is very much in line with our product roadmap,” said Ludo Hertroijs, v-p of IBS Bookmaster. There are, of course, familiar concerns as well: chief among them for publishers in the poll is the effect that discount retailers, including Amazon, will have on margins. Some 84% have expressed this as their most pressing issue, up from 65% last year.
IBS Bookmaster said they were coming to BEA, and Peel suggested they just might bring along a few bottles of single malt. It will be interesting to see how a heavily-U.S. based sample size responds.