Yesterday I was a little unfair to Easons for the pronouncements of the company’s spokesperson and the tone of the article on its ebook strategy which suggested the company was about to embark on a mission to build a rival platform to B&N and Amazon, something that would surely have been a valiant, if doomed, effort.
When I thought about it for the rest of the day though it got me thinking about just how much ebooks are changing the profile of book publishing and bookselling and how quickly that is happening. For instance I am almost certain of two things about the Irish ebook market:
1) That foreign based platforms and retailers account for the majority of sales (Amazon, Apple, Kobo, Sony etc)
2) That like in the print world UK publishers (and their local imprints) publish the majority of ebooks bought in Ireland both in terms of units and revenue
I’m also close to certain about a third item, but without evidence I cannot prove it, here it goes anyway:
3) That US-based publishers sell more units (and I don’t doubt generate more revenue) from ebooks in Ireland than domestic Irish publishers do and are perhaps second only to the UK publishers (and their Irish imprints)
The first and the last points there are pretty radical statements. The first represents a huge change to the Irish experience of the book industry. Right now in print terms, most books bought by Irish consumers are sold to them by Irish retailers, Easons the principle one but others like Dubray, The Book Centres, Kenny’s, O’Mahony’s, Hughes & Hughes and many many others. That is despite the growth of physical sales through Amazon and the internationally owned (except for Dunnes Stores) supermarket chains. The wholesale and distribution businesses are also heavily Irish owned (with some British presence, increasingly on the Library supply side of things).
The Difference Digital Makes
But the situation is dramatically different on the ebook side of the house. Easons is the only ebook retailer of note in the Irish context (others should shout out if I’ve unfairly missed them out). On the ebook distribution side, EpubDirect are the only (and admittedly impressive) crew actually making a go of that business and even they don’t make up for the fact that the majority of ebooks sold in Ireland will have been distributed through other channels.
You can argue the toss over why this is the case but several factors loom large:
1) Irish publishers have been slow to digitize their content (though they are getting there now)
2) Irish retailers have been slow to embrace the web (except for a few notable exceptions) and slower to embrace eCommerce (again a few notable exceptions aside) and, finally, even slower again to embrace ebook retailing
3) The costs of developing ebook platforms, ebook retailing sites and ebook distribution systems are high, the Irish market is small, while it might have been possible to forecast the potential to gain customers outside of the island, it is a difficult result to actually achieve (which makes EpubDirect’s success all the more impressive) which mitigates against anyone investing in them
In terms of sales, while UK publishers and their Irish based imprints have come to dominate the book trade, significant numbers of books published by Irish houses continue to sell in print form and account for anything between 15-25% of the trade. With ebooks however, sales from publishers whose books would not traditionally have been made available in Irish territory is increasingly likely. For instance a US published book that does well but might not get a print deal outside of the US has as much (if not more) opportunity to sell in Ireland as any other ebook, the key is whether it is high in bestseller/popular lists or promoted by the retailer for some reason
The only ebook store that really seems to cater specifically for the Irish ebook market is Apple’s iTunes so when Irish publishers do start to make content available they have to fight against ALL the published content there is, not just all the domestically published content and all the UK published content as they do in the print world. Further the people making decisions about ebook merchandising are rarely based in Ireland as once they were (or indeed still are in the print world) and therefore open to some discussion or indeed charm (not inconsiderable amounts of which the Irish are possessed). You see the problem.
The Outside Context Problem
The Irish publishing industry is fast running into what might be described as some fashion of an ‘Outside Context Problem‘ wherein the new arrivals on the scene are vastly superior in terms of abilities, vastly superior in terms of resources and possessed of superior technology. While some of the participants in the market might grasp the nature of the problem and respond as effectively as they can, the truth is that the disparity in attributes makes success unlikely and the new threat is very much an existential one.
Which sounds very dramatic but think of it this way. The Irish consumer market for trade books is around €150 million a year and 15 million units all in. Suppose only 30% shifts digital over time or €45 million and 4.5 million units. That would leave only €105 million up for grabs for Irish retailers in print form and 10.5 million units. The impact on stores, book publishers and other market participants would be pretty dramatic. There would be closures and job losses and the industry would be considerably weaker. And that’s just the impact on the retail side of the trade. The impact on the publishing side of the trade is unknowable, but there is little doubt that it would be significant and would probably be negative for the domestic publishers (see my earlier paragraph on why). The UK publishers will probably cede sales to US-based publishers, especially if US publishers seek to enforce global ebook rights deals on authors.
We are probably headed in the direction of 30% digital pretty quickly. If we even approach the kind of conversion to digital sales that seems to be happening in the US or even the UK, we can expect that 30% figure to be a reality by 2015. By then the Irish industry will have changed radically and will become almost unstoppably more international not just in terms of the books that sell her, but also in terms of those who sell them. US publishers will probably be the second biggest publishers of ebooks bought by Irish readers (if not the first having overtaken the UK).
There’s interesting evidence of this too from the other side of the fence. The AAP reported that ‘total eBook net sales revenue [for US publisher] for 2011 was $21.5 million, a gain of 332.6% over 2010; this represents 3.4 million eBook units sold in 2011, up 303.3%.’
Frustratingly the APP did not share details for Ireland (those were contained in the full report but not as a single territory, rather as part of a larger group of English language territories) so we don’t know how well those publishers are doing here. Still, we can assume that they did well relative to the size of the market.
What’s more, Ireland and the story of change in the publishing industry really acts as a microcosm for the rest of the English language publishing industry (indeed it acts as a microcosm for any small market which shares a language with a much larger market be it French or German or Spanish or Chinese).
In some ways the whole industry is encountering the ‘Outside Context Problem’ I mentioned earlier as software and technology firms move into a traditionally physical business, but for larger companies, responding can be easier because of their scale and their resources make for a wider context as it were. It’s the small markets where the combination of these larger players and the changes in technology make for such a difficult problem.
Beautiful day here in Dublin!
Interestingly (or maybe just interesting for me) I wrote some time ago about the impact of divergent rates of digital growth on small markets, and in many ways this post is all about that impact. The increasing internationalization of the Irish publishing industry is driven by the very issue I highlighted: Divergent Growth Rates In Digital.