Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Surveying E-Books

Easily-offended British writer Stephen Hunt released the results (PDF) of his "survey" of ebook users today, claiming that 71% of people are now using ebooks.

Of course, since his poll was entirely self-selected -- and, even more so, because it took place entirely on the Internet, as part of discussions about books and ebooks -- it's utterly unreliable as proof of anything in the wider world, as two seconds' thought would prove. All that this survey actually says is that people interested in the ebook question online tend to be already reading ebooks, which should be thoroughly uncontroversial and non-newsworthy.

His comments -- claiming that ebooks will soon "top out at over 90% or market size in the near future," among others -- further prove that he has no idea what he's talking about, and that he hasn't been listening when his editors and agents have described his own book sales to him.

But, if you wanted actual numbers, you were also in luck today: Pew Research Center did a real survey (randomized and everything) of US consumers, finding that 12% of respondents owned an ebook reader (up from 6% in November). Tablet computers (such as iPads) were owned by 8% of respondents (up from 5%).

Once again: ebooks are a strongly growing market, and some categories (particularly the most mass-market categories, like romances and thrillers) have seen immense growth. But physical books are still roughly 50% of the sales of even those most e-driven categories, and consumer books will not tip over to primarily e-books until readers and tablets are much more ubiquitous than a total 17% of the potential market. (Some professional categories, and many reference works, are nearly all-digital now, but those are database businesses, and very different from the impulse-driven consumer market.)

Let me say that again: only 17% of the US population owns an e-reader or a tablet. (And only about a third of the population has a smartphone, the other potential e-reading device -- note that tablet/e-reader owners are highly likely to have smartphones as well, so those numbers are not additive.) The growth curve of e-books is going to slow down, before too long, and paper books will not go away.

And, more importantly, it is entirely possible for something new to come along and not destroy existing media -- more than possible, it's common. After all, Broadway -- that most old-fashioned of all of our entertainment media -- had a possibly-record year in 2010, bringing in $1.037 billion in sales.

The sky is not falling, and thinking that it is blinds you to the actual opportunities and threats that really exist.


The Plan said...

Paper books will not go away. But that's in part because of how many of them have been printed in the last century. It took the ebook a very, very short amount of time to gain 17 percent. The number of paper books being published will shrink and has been shrinking even before the emergence of the ebook. Let's keep in my paper publishing is its own worst enemy. As it finds more ways to lose money, it will by default find ways not to sell even great products to it's potential.

Keep two things in mind. First off, it wasn't too long ago that people were talking about how nobody read unless it was Stephen King or Harry Potter. While that is far from true, reading seems to have increased across demographics, in large part due to ebooks, even in a down economy. The other thing is this: the mere fact that paper books need to be defended is reason to believe they're on their way out. Nobody is talking about ebooks staying or not, because they surely are.

GordonVG said...

Andy, can you point me to Stephen Hunt's original survey? My memory of it suggests that the questions might not quite line up with the answers listed in that press release.

---Gordon V.G.

Andrew Wheeler said...

Gordon: I haven't been able to find the original survey, actually; all of my searches for Hunt get filled up by his spat with the BBC over World Book Night, and I can't seem to dig up the original survey. (I thought he'd announced it at his blog, but I can't find it there.

The Plan: Actually, reading books for pleasure is at about the same rate that it's been for quite some time. Following media reports of anything will give you a very skewed vision of the actual frequency of that thing. (Just look at all of the missing pretty blonde women, for example.)

Again, nothing is "on the way out," and the actual current state of affairs never needs to be "defended." But when nuance-deaf reporters and sensation-seeking consultants are dominating the conversation, one may hope to clarify that actual situation now and then. That, of course, depends on the public actually listening, and it doesn't appear that you are.

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