The super-threat

In writing “The opportunity in abundance”, I characterized “people not reading” as the publishing manifestation of a “super-threat”, an overarching challenge that the industry could collectively work to address.

Certain aspects of “abundance”, notably a call to combine association funding in pursuit of a larger goal, prompted some early discussion but fundamentally no change. While not a surprise, the lack of movement remains a disappointment.

Two weeks ago, Ed Nawotka of Publishing Perspectives covered if:Book, held in Milan. At the event, David Walter of Nielsen BookScan provided an overview of 2012 book sales around the world. In miniature:

  • United Kingdom down 3.4%
  • Italy down 7.7%
  • South Africa down 8.8%
  • United States down 9.3%
  • Spain down 10.3%
  • South Korea down 20%

On its own, this data doesn’t prove that reading is on the decline. In the United States, for example, eBooks are bought at prices that are lower than all formats other than mass-market paperbacks. You’d have to sell at least twice as many eBooks to match the top-line revenue of a hardcover format, so reading may be level or increasing even as revenues fall.

Also, Nielsen’s data provides estimates of retail sales in existing channels. As consumption patterns shift, it’s possible that book purchases are migrating away from those channels. We already know that ISBN use among self-published authors is hit-or-miss; estimates for those missed sales are rare and likely error-prone.

The decline might also be a temporary blip in markets where digital sales are strong but e-gifting options are limited. Fix that problem, as Enthrill and Livrada are working to do, and we might see stronger sales of gift books of all types.

But …

Suppose the falloff in sales really does indicate a decline in demand for books. Nawotka asks: “Could it be something as straightforward as a lack of focus on fostering literacy and a love of books and reading? Or are there larger social and economic changes afoot?”

Truthfully, no one really knows. That’s a problem, especially when purchase and consumption patterns are shifting quickly. Our best studies are inadequate, in that they summarize self-reported data, extrapolate from existing channels and miss the “dark matter” of non-traditional content creation and sales.

Nawotka gives the publishing industry credit for its efforts to “innovate and advance into the digital age”, but I am less certain. If we were really interested in the digital age, wouldn’t we want to know more than Amazon or Kobo does about how books are read, shared, evaluated and even abandoned? Our “best efforts” are still treating the book as an object, while literacy is clearly the product of an ecosystem.

A bit of disclosure: I am one of a small number of industry advisors working with Enthrill on its efforts to bring a point-of-sale eBook card to retail environments. Enthrill and its management had no role in the creation of this post.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

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