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The ebook evolution

The fifth in a series looking at the major themes of this year's TOC conference.

At TOC, you’re as likely to run into media professionals, entrepreneurs and innovators as you are publishers, booksellers and others working in traditional publishing. This, in turn, makes the underlying themes as varying and diverse as the attendees. This is the final piece in a series taking a look at five themes that permeated interviews, sessions and/or keynotes at this year’s show. The complete series will be posted here.


Discussions about the future of digital and how ebooks and ereading may evolve permeated nearly every aspect of this year’s show. From data on how readers are acquiring and consuming ebooks to genres that are working well — and those that aren’t — to platform and format trends and predictions, the evolution of ebooks and ereading was probably the most pervasive of the major themes at TOC 2012.

Len Vlahos, executive director of the Book Industry Study Group, and Kelly Gallagher, vice president of publishing services at RR Bowker, led the “Data for Consumer Attitudes Toward E-Book Reading” session. They presented data on how consumers are adopting and consuming ebooks.

An interesting slide provided a visualization of the technology adoption curve in the U.S. between 1910 and 1999:

The text may not be readable, but the message is clear — as explained in the presentation:

“The X axis is time, the Y axis is percent penetration of U.S. households. The squiggly blue line all the way to the left is the telephone. The two red lines in the middle are television and color television. You can see in the case of almost every technology, a slow ramp up, followed by explosive growth leading to almost total penetration. When utility surpasses earlier technologies and when production capacity increases and cost decreases to a sufficient point, the line curves up.”

They then compared this to what is happening with ebooks. Some genres followed the exploding path while others flattened out. Fiction clearly is leading the ebook evolution at this point:

BISGSlide2

The ebook questions in 2012, they said, will include how much more growth in fiction is possible, when will the other genres get moving and what kind of role is technology actually playing in adoption. The presentation also included data about ebook power buyers, the patterns of buying in general and the roles children and youths might play in the future of ebooks.

The slides, along with a transcript of the presentation, can be found here.

Michael Tamblyn, executive vice president of content, sales and merchandising at Kobo, Inc., specifically addressed digital non-fiction — or the lack thereof — in the “Cracking the Non-fiction Code” session. Tamblyn noted that the split in fiction/non-fiction print is about 55/45, respectively, but that in digital, even after several years in, the fiction/nonfiction divide is “abysmal”:

TamblynSlide1

Tamblyn talked about the reasons behind the discrepancy and looked at the percent to which digital over or under indexes print consumption:

TamblynSlide2

Looking at the reasons behind the inequalities, Tamblyn said there are some commonsense reasons — the gift economy around children’s books, for example, skews toward physical, print books, as do juvenile categories in libraries — but that there are other reasons why genres such as travel, reference and cooking are indexing more toward print than digital. These publishing areas, for instance, have the added component of free online competitors, such as TripAdvisor.com and AllRecipes.com.

He highlighted the non-fiction pricing versus unit sales, which indicates that, so far, “digital non-fiction is a backlist business, to a degree far greater than what we see on the fiction side”:

TamblynSlide3

Tamblyn said he’s been encouraging publishers “to start digging into that backlist non-fiction catalog, get more of those title made more quickly … get those rights cleared and get those books out — they have a longer life than you may think.”

He also said there are great opportunities around the gift economy in children’s books — that the gifts are shifting from physical books to reading devices, indicating digital opportunities going forward and explaining a spike in ebook sales after the holidays. He suggested developing a reading device specifically for children to optimize the reading experience for that level may help push adoption forward.

Tamblyn’s session slides can be found here, and more from Tamblyn on what ereader customers want can be viewed in this TOC webcast.

The ebook evolution discussion took a turn toward the technical side in a video interview with Peter Meyers, author of “Breaking the Page: Transforming Books and the Reading Experience” and “Kindle Fire: The Missing Manual.” He tackled a question about ebooks versus book apps and whether the forms would merge or one would become dominant:

“I think a lot of people in the industry get hung up on this question of what’s the term we’re going to use going forward. If we look at the music industry, the terms ‘record’ and ‘album’ have stuck around, even as the physical format has largely disappeared. I think the word ‘book’ is here to stay … I think the other term likely to emerge is ‘app’ … We’ll start saying, ‘Hey, have you seen the new Stephen King app?’ That app might include book-like elements, but it will also be able to accommodate things like interactive features … I would guess we’ll see books and apps coexist side by side, and they’ll do different things.”

Meyers also talked about how digital is changing publishing over all, that with the infinite canvas of digital publishing, what publishers really are selling is 10, 15, 20 hours of entertainment or assistance in cooking or playing golf. His entire interview can be viewed here.

Sameer Shariff, founder and CEO of Impelsys, agreed in a video interview that ebooks and book apps would both continue as separate products. He also addressed a question about platforms and how the need for conversion will evolve:

“What we’re seeing is [that the need for conversion] is not going to dissipate … [publishers] can’t do it themselves … Now the big thing is EPUB3, and with the Apple iBookstore, there’s a new format there. It’s not going to be completely automated — there is going to be some element of manual intervention.”

Shariff’s entire interview can be viewed here.

Along that same line, Sanders Kleinfeld, publishing technologies specialist at O’Reilly, tackled the question of whether or not the industry will see a universal format emerge:

“I’m really optimistic, and I really hope so. I think that’s what they’re striving for with the EPUB3 standard, which is based around all these open technologies — HTML5, CSS3 and JavaScript. I’m hopeful that ereaders will follow suit with what’s been happening on the web, where you can build an HTML5 website and there’s pretty good compatibility across the board, whether you’re looking at it in Google Chrome or Safari or Firefox. I’m really optimistic that EPUB3, or the next generation — maybe EPUB4, will be the open standard that re-flowable ebooks will coalesce around using open technologies and that that will be supported by the various ereaders.”

You can view Kleinfeld’s entire interview in the following video, and you can see slides from his session “HTML5 for Publishershere:

For more on the ebook evolution discussion, sessions with published slides and/or video can be browsed here.


If you couldn’t make it to TOC, or you missed a session you wanted to see, sign up for the TOC 2012 Complete Video Compilation and check out our archive of free keynotes and interviews.


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  • http://rethinkthweb.blogspot.com/ Jim McNeely

    I think the reason fiction leads in ebooks is because the ebook format is unfriendly to non-fiction. I have a Kindle touch, which I love. It’s great for pure linear reading. For a reference book, say HTML in a nutshell, I just want to thumb over to that familiar part and look at it. With an ereader, you really can’t do that, it is much harder to navigate. You can bookmark things, but you can’t navigate in an organic way to get what you know is there.

  • http://lafeuille.blog.lemonde.fr Hubert Guillaud

    There is no concurrency for fiction books online. But there are many for essay or non-fiction books, as cooking, traveling or reference. Do we still need non-fiction books with the web ?

    ;-) Provocative question…