There’s a lot of hubbub right now about Google eBooks finally launching, with pundits o’plenty lining up to declare it the latest Kindle Killer, this time with the added bonus of it being the savior of Independent Bookstores!
Except, yeah, not so much. Not really. On either front.
Google makes a big deal in a promotional video that their new initiative offers something unique: choice. From syncing your books across devices to purchasing from a variety of retail partners, it’s a pretty compelling proposition for relatively uninformed book lovers who’ve not yet made the switch to ebooks and have presumably not heard of a little company called Amazon and their newfangled Kindle ereader and related apps.
While this is quite likely going to be an Ereader Christmas and there will surely be records set for ebook downloads and sales on December 25th as people rush to load up their new toys, I suspect there’s not as much long-term upside as conventional wisdom seems to believe.
Considering the relatively small percentage of people who read more than 12 books/year, ebooks’ primary selling points — portability and space-saving — aren’t all that compelling outside of the conference circuit. And as long as pricing remains out of sync with their value — especially licensing vs. owning, and the limitations that implies — the reported “widespread inability to calculate return on investment (ROI)” will handicap the flow of content into digital sales channels from established publishers.
I’ve long believed that there’s a pretty firm ceiling on ebook growth at around 30%, at least for trade publishers approaching them as just another format for the same old books. While most comparisons to the music industry don’t stand up to scrutiny, one data point that I find particularly notable is that, as of May 2010, digital downloads still haven’t crossed the 50% mark:
Based on NPD’s latest music industry research, sales of digital tracks and albums accounted for 40 percent of overall music market share in the first quarter (Q1) of 2010, which is a 5 percentage point gain since Q1 2009. NPD’s data is based on a combined music-retailer ranking that reflects the combined sales of CDs and digital music downloads (i.e., 12 digital music track downloads are equivalent to one CD).
“Unfortunately the decline in U.S. CD sales means that selection and merchandising of the physical CDs is suffering, which is one of the primary reasons consumers say they purchased CDs less frequently,” said Crupnick. “Online shopping offers consumers who still want CDs more variety than they would get in a brick-and-mortar store; plus, recommendations, and other interactive features that raise the overall value proposition for music buyers. ”
That final bit is interesting in relation to Google’s indie bookseller angle, — a very savvy PR move on their part, partnering with the likes of mega-independent Powell’s and smaller retailers like WORD via the ABA’s IndieCommerce platform — and the belief that this somehow levels the playing field, as if ebooks have been the issue all along, as opposed to Amazon’s perfecting ecommerce while Jeff Bezos ignored the pundits who focused only on his quarterly earnings in the early years.
(And, of course, the sweet deal they get on taxes.)
Of course, Amazon doesn’t sit back quietly when competitors launch new initiatives, they usually respond pretty quickly. Google promotes choice, and launches a web-based reader as part of their “everywhere” platform? Amazon announces Kindle for the Web will soon allow for reading “the full text of Kindle books in your web browser. No download or installation required.” Anyone paying attention when it first launched KNEW that was coming.
And where does Seth Godin come in?
“Powered by Amazon” is part of our name—it describes the unique nature of the venture… I get to figure out the next neat idea, and Amazon can handle printing, logistics and the platform for connection.
It’s long frustrated me that a blog post can reach 100 times as many people as a book, but can’t deliver the nuance a book can. The Domino Project is organized around a fundamentally different model of virality, one that allows authors to directly reach people who can use the ideas we’re writing about.
I’ve had a love/hate relationship with Godin over the past year or so as he’s been prone to what I call #bloggingtoohard, drifting too far into punditry at times and putting his foot in his mouth. But I really like this new initiative because it’s not talk, it’s action, and it’s a pretty compelling approach to a new model of publishing that goes way beyond simply converting books into electronic form and, maybe, adding a few bells and whistles.
It’s exactly the kind of experimentation I called for back in January that completely rethinks what publishing can be, and he’s doing it with Amazon instead of his traditional publisher presumably because of the one extra thing they add to the mix: “the platform for connection.”
In the old days, that platform was the physical bookshelf in a brick-and-mortar retailer. Today, it’s a combination of email and ecommerce.
On that note, Amazon wins. And by extension, so does Godin and authors like him who have successfully established platforms of their own.
If you thought 2010 was a crazy year in publishing, you ain’t seen nothing yet!