Despite a dramatic drop in the number of new titles published, the e-book market should have double-digit sales growth for the third year running in 2004, according to the industry trade group the Open eBook Forum.

OeBF, which has been collecting data on the e-book market since the first quarter of 2002, reports that retailer unit sales for the first nine months of 2004 were 1.2 million, a 14% increase over the same period in 2003. Retailer revenue for the first nine months of 2004 was $9.5 million, a 20% increase over the same period in 2003. "We don't see any reason why growth will tail off any time soon," said Nick Bogaty, Open eBook Forum's executive director. Retailers' numbers bear that out. Scott Pendergast and Stephen Pendergast, owners of online e-book retailer, told PW that their unit sales in 2004 are almost double those of 2003. Still, total sales for e-books is small compared to the print industry, between $12 million and $15 million a year, estimated Bogaty.

Sales numbers have been increasing even as e-book publishers have been slowing the release of new titles. The number of new e-books fell 57% in this year's third quarter, Bogaty said, due in part to "publishers understanding better what sells in e-book format and what doesn't." Bogaty described earlier years of e-book publishing as a time of "a lot of experimentation. Increasingly publishers, at least trade publishers, realize that trade fiction, genre fiction, romance, science fiction, mystery and reference are what sells in electronic form. "

There's been tremendous growth in the library market as well. OverDrive, an e-book wholesaler and e-vendor, for example, launched its library service in April 2003, "and in the past six months, we've done 500 public libraries," said OverDrive president Steve Potash. Meanwhile, at Fictionwise, "slightly slower consumer growth was made up for in library growth," said Steve Pendergast. Libraries offer a large number of categories for e-books to fill: foreign language, children's, young adult, picture books, scholastic materials, classics and tweens, Potash noted.

Handheld E-readers

The growth in e-books sales is tied to expanding use of handheld devices, but retailers did issue a note of caution due to slowing sales of PDAs. Fictionwise sales are "just doubling instead of tripling, because the PDA market is slowing," Pendergast explained. Fictionwise is reintroducing the Gemstar reading device, which was pulled from the market in 2003, later this month. The GEB 1150 device will now be called the eBookwise-1150. Fictionwise is giving the device a soft launch this month with 8,000 titles available to start and "several thousand coming online in the next month or so," Steve Pendergast said.

Other devices to watch are the Sony Librie EBR-1000 EP, introduced in Japan in April, with a price point under $400. Also growing in popularity is Mobipocket, a cross-platform reading software format that displays e-books on PDAs and smart phones. "While the PDA market has been here for some time and growth has flattened somewhat, the smart phone is through the roof," Potash said. The phone screen, however, is very small, about the width of a single newspaper column.

From a content standpoint, 2004 has been a big year for romance. "That tells me that more and more women are reading e-books," said Bogaty. Bestsellers, which are released simultaneously in print and e-book format, are predictably popular. Then there are the entirely new categories poised to make an impact in 2005, according to Potash. Foreign language material should be a big area for growth, Potash said. "We just loaded 1,000 manga titles in Japanese." Education is another area to watch, Potash said.

And the mighty iPod is making ripples in the e-book market. Fictionwise has only a few dozen audiobook titles available, "but occasionally those titles hit our bestseller lists because of the iPod. We're already talking to some suppliers and could have hundreds of titles by the first quarter," said Scott Pendergast. "It's not an e-book, but it's digital content, downloadable. For us it's just another format—although one that takes considerably more bandwith. In our surveys of our members, that's been the number one new thing that they want."

Fishman is a freelance technology writer.