“Global e-book sales at Amazon could reach $2.5 billion by the year 2012.”
No, this hyperbole doesn't come from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who has always been famously circumspect about discussing his business. Instead, it was the prediction of an independent analyst (for an outfit called Pacific Crest) named Steve Weinstein, as quoted last week by the Washington Post.
And here I thought I was bullish about e-reading. Yet while it's true that I regularly buy books for my Sony Reader (a gift after my tragic loss of one of the earliest Kindles), download manuscripts and galleys from publishers when I can get them and brag about both devices to whatever Luddites will listen (I love the Kindle's wireless download and ability to read newspapers; I prefer the reading experience of the Sony), I still had to laugh. Two-and-a-half billion dollars in just four years? The total trade book market, according to the AAP, is “only” about $9.6 billion. That seems mighty optimistic, indeed, especially if you consider that his $2.5 billion is the total sales of e-books that retail for around $10. That's a whole lotta units.
But what Weinstein didn't say—or wasn't quoted as saying—is what portion of the market the Kindle will constitute. Will the total book market be so much bigger overall that e-books will be only a slightly bigger slice than it is today (maybe 1%). I'd love to think so, but even I can't be that deluded and he that upbeat. More likely, I'm afraid, Weinstein is suggesting exactly what some book folks, secretly or not, are beginning to fear: that e-books will indeed take off—and end up cannibalizing the “regular” book market. As the “older” generation of “real” book readers dies off, the thinking goes, they'll be replaced by members of the upcoming generation, who, after all, are accustomed to (and in fact prefer) reading electronically. The total number of readers and book buyers, then, will remain about the same; it's the format that they utilize that will be different.
And what's wrong with that? Nothing, if all that you're concerned about is how far and how well content can be disseminated. But publishers (and agents and authors) have an additional concern, which is making money. And if e-book prices stay where they are, and royalty and other arrangements remain the same, authors (and agents) will be out a pretty penny if one-quarter of the market buys “content” for $10, say, instead of $20. (Even if publishers save on printing and shipping costs, the drastic reduction in unit price will negatively affect their bottom lines, too; and pity the poor bricks-and-mortar bookseller, outfitted to sell a very different product).
Lucky for us, then, that the e-worriers are, I predict, way wrong, just as those who worried that audiobooks would supplant “real” books, and DVDs would demolish cinemas were wrong. Sure, there is some cannibalizing and crossover, but just as there are certain books you would rather listen to than read (and vice versa) and some movies you'll rush to the theater to see, there is room in the world for another way to enjoy written narrative. Put it another way: there will always be books you can read in pixels, and others you'll still want to read in the bathtub.