Much of the buzz at Frankfurt Book Fair this year was about ebooks, and particularly the impact that the Amazon Kindle and Sony Reader have had on that part of the industry over the last year. According to IDPF spokesperson Michael Smith, ebook sales this year are up 53% in the US, and for August they are 83% higher than last year. Distributor Ingram Digital has reported the third quarter of ebook sales double last year’s. When I repeat those stats to people in conversation they obviously don’t compute: reactions flatline completely. If I’d said, “sales are up 20%!”, perhaps reactions would be much stronger, because we’re used to figures like that in a well-performing industry. But 53% YTD, in publishing? Seriously? It’s an absurd figure. It’s bizarre. If they were selling physical items, retailers would be running out of stock everywhere, overwhelmed by the surprising rush. In fact, Waterstones did run out of Sony Readers when they began selling the device in the UK a few months ago. Thank goodness the books themselves are digital.
Bigger publishers have been scrambling to get their backlist titles converted to ebooks, and unfortunately have been creating large lists of poorly converted ebooks for retailers to sell. One aggregator–retailer I spoke to, at Ebooks.com, said they’ve had to develop their own in-house conversion and quality control systems to make up for it and have struggled to get systems in place to make ebooks they’re happy with. Mike Vantusko, a senior executive at Overdrive, one of the world’s biggest ebook distributors, disappointed publishers by saying every ebook they create really needs a “visual check”, a human being to page through the thing before distribution. The audience could barely repress a groan, as they saw their expensive automated solutions being slowed down by fussy human beings.
But making a great ebook takes the same care as making a great print book. And being human beings themselves, consumers will soon learn the difference between a mediocre ebook and a beautiful, well-structured one. In the long run, publishers who realise that will make the most of a marketplace that, right now, looks something like a Californian gold rush.