The ebook is dead, long live the ebook

By Molly Flatt 8 December 2015
Michael Tamblyn, CEO at Kobo.

Have ebooks finally come of age? Molly Flatt finds them at a critical tipping point.

“We all took a breather when the fantastic growth of ebooks finally slowed. But that breather is over.”  

It was with those words that Nigel Roby, chief executive of The Bookseller, introduced FutureBook 15, Europe’s largest annual publishing conference, in a timely warning to industry leaders not to get complacent about the so-called ‘ebook plateau’.

Back in January, Nielsen released research showing that UK readers spent £2.2bn on physical books in 2013, compared to just £300m on ebooks. Combined with comments from Waterstones chief exec James Daunt, who declared that sales of traditional books were rising strongly while demand for ebook readers had “to all intents and purposes disappeared” – a tale echoed by rival chain Foyles – it suggested that the book trade’s digital freefall had finally levelled out.

Cue a slew of victorious op-eds, including a piece from The New York Times this September which suggested that “publishing, while not immune to technological upheaval, will weather the tidal wave of digital technology better than other forms of media, like music and television.”

The new normal

But at FutureBook, the overriding message was that the ‘new normal’ is a comforting but erroneous illusion. Michael Tamblyn – the CEO of ereading company Kobo, who delivered one of the most blistering keynotes of the day – believes that there is plenty more disruption to come.

“Ebooks are alive and well,” he told The Memo. “Self-publishing has continued to grow like crazy, although that doesn’t show up on most industry reports, and our digital customers continue to buy at greater rates than ever.”

Book lovers are leaving their ereaders at home and switching to mobile apps.

As he points out, there are plenty of alternative stats which suggest that ebooks are still pioneering mountainous change for the industry rather than languishing in a plateau. A recent PwC Media trend report called ‘Ebooks on the rise’ predicted that ebooks will make up 50% of the $21 billion US trade book market by 2016, while at the start of this year, Apple claimed that its iBooks platform was gaining a million new users a week.

“The benefits of ebooks haven’t changed,” Tamblyn insists. “Immediacy, portability, affordability. Incredible selection on any device. Digital lets you bring your whole reading life with you wherever you go – a compelling benefit. Innovation is everywhere.”

Rise and rise of apps

Unfortunately, innovation can prove particularly dangerous for any company with a big stake in a specific format. Today, Kobo releases its annual Book Report, which reveals that nearly 32% of British Kobo users now choose to read on apps. With Kindle sales in steady decline since 2011 and Barnes & Noble’s Nook division losing $70m a year, is this the end for the dedicated ereader device?

“Our report does illustrate a growing British trend towards using apps, but 68% of total reading time was still spent on a Kobo ereader device, so it’s clearly still a hugely popular way to read,” Tamblyn rebuffs. “The best customers do both – read on a device and on an app. They’re using digital to fit as much reading into their lives as possible. For example, last year we created the Kobo Aura H2O, with a waterproof and sandproof design, a direct response to insights from customers looking to read in the bath or the pool.”

It can be easy to imagine, as you swipe through page after ugly page, that ebook innovation reached its peak with the development of electronic paper in the mid-nineties. At FutureBook, however, Pottermore’s Susan Jurevics could be heard enthusing about a new range of enhanced Harry Potter ebooks about to take the next generation of fans by storm (snitches jump off the page!), while Jane Friedman of Open Road gave an evangelical speech about using ebooks to rejuvenate authors’ backlists.

Tamblyn himself insists that discoverability, not interactive wizardry, is now ereading’s cutting edge. “We get better and better at helping a reader find their next book. What can we do as a retailer to make recommendations that are as good or better than what you could get in a bookstore? That’s one of the areas where innovation takes place and you wouldn’t even know it, except that you are enjoying the books you’re reading more than ever. “

What’s more, he refuses to toe the digital evangelist’s line about the death of print. What we’re seeing, he believes, is the healthy recalibration of a truly hybrid industry.

“Ebooks are alive and well, but they have become a big enough part of the book ecosystem that they are now affected by what’s going on in the rest of the market. Right now, the industry is short on big fiction bestsellers and adult colouring books are all the rage. Great for bookstores, apparently relaxing for consumers, but hard to translate into digital. That’s fine.

“Digital continues to perform incredibly well with some types of non-fiction and genre fiction like romance, sci-fi, fantasy, thrillers and crime, but publishers have also upped their game with types of books that are best experienced in print – incredibly beautiful cookbooks and art books, books that are beautiful physical objects and make great gifts. I think what we are seeing is publishers and retailers of all types refining their approach to what readers want, and that’s always a good thing.”

In short, publishing is currently falling prey to Amara’s Law: overestimating the effect of a technology in the short run while underestimating its effect in the long run. The ebook game is turning out to be more of a marathon than a sprint, but the message to publishers remains clear: it isn’t time to rest on your laurels yet.