It was surprising to hear the news so soon, even for those of us who knew it was coming: Amazon.com announced in July that its sales of electronic books had zoomed past sales of hardcovers.
In the second quarter of 2010, for every 100 hardcover books it sold, the online retailer sold 143 e-books to users of its Kindle reader and the Kindle app. In June, that ratio rose to 180 to 100. (The e-book number does not include free Kindle books.)
Amazon, by far the biggest retailer of e-books, sold more than three times as many of them in the first half of 2010 as in the first half of 2009. Other e-book retailers are seeing sales increase as well — the Association of American Publishers reported that all e-book sales grew 207 percent year to date through May over the previous year.
In short, folks who thought those new-fangled e-readers would never catch on were wrong. I don't think we're seeing the end of the printed book (paperback sales remain stronger than e-books), but we're certainly seeing a shift in the way people buy and read books that echoes the past decade's changes in how we buy and listen to music.
And it's not likely to slow down. A new report from Forrester Research predicts that by 2015, 29.4 million Americans will own e-readers. That's almost 10 times as many as the 3.7 million e-reader owners at the end of 2009 — and that's not counting owners of tablet computers used to read e-books, like the iPad.
As e-books grow ever more popular, here's a quick look at who wins, who loses and for whom it's too soon to tell:
Readers: For those who have made the shift to e-books, lower prices and ease of purchase mean they can buy more books, get them faster — and save money on bookcases.
Students and school districts: Although there are costs up front for e-readers, the lower prices of digital textbooks could mean enormous savings for cash-strapped schools and colleges, and their students.
Self-published authors: Digital publishing is much less expensive than printing and distributing a paper book, and savvy authors can use the Web to market their e-books, too.
Amazon: Duh. Other e-book retailers win as well, but Amazon's domination of the market continues to be worrisome.
Independent bookstores: These meccas for bibliophiles have been struggling for a decade or more, first against bricks-and-mortar chains, then against online bookselling. Thousands have gone out of business. Although Google Editions and the American Booksellers Association have been working on a plan to promote the sale of e-books through independent bookstores, that may be too little too late. Support your local independent bookseller now, while you still can.
State and local coffers: In many states (including Florida) electronically delivered books aren't subject to sales tax.
Book designers: Those handsome objects you hold in your hands don't just happen. Covers, jackets, pages — all are the work of skilled creative teams. An e-book may include an image of a cover, but other elements of book design are rendered moot by the fact that e-readers make every book you buy look the same.
Printing companies: Not to mention associated industries, like papermaking, and the truck drivers and warehouse workers who move those books from place to place. Producing and transporting millions of books employs many, many people.
People who love to lend their books: For some of us, pressing a beloved book into a friend's hand is almost a sacrament. For others, it's just a way to make room for more books. But most e-readers are closed systems that either limit sharing or make it impossible. (Also, those bins of used books at thrift stores may go the way of used stagecoach parts.)
Too early to know
Authors: The Authors Guild and other groups are campaigning for higher royalties, arguing that because production costs of e-books are so much lower, publishers can afford to pay as much as 50 percent of the retail price to authors (who now get a much lower percentage). That might happen — but a mitigating factor is consumer demand for lower prices for e-books, along with Amazon's unilateral move to set book prices at $9.99 or less. If book prices continue to drop, so does the author's share.
Authors of books from before the era of digital publishing, and their heirs and publishers: Publishing contracts signed decades ago make no provision for e-book editions. That makes digital publishing rights uncharted territory — a problem highlighted last week when the Wylie Agency, a literary agent for the estates of Saul Bellow and John Updike as well as such living authors as Salman Rushdie and Phillip Roth, started its own e-publishing company. Odyssey Editions was launched with digital editions of Portnoy's Complaint, Updike's Rabbit novels and more, all issued without the permission of print publisher Random House, and all sold exclusively through Amazon. The move drew concerned responses from the Author's Guild and Random House.
Publishing houses: Traditional book publishers are battling to find their place in the e-book marketplace. After years of exerting great control over what books were published and how they were priced and marketed, they're suddenly just one player at the table. Some will win, but others could be wiped out.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.