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E-book sales, devices soar

The "e" in e-books isn't just for "electronic" — it's also for "electric," as in expected sales of both e-book readers and digital books themselves. Demand for the displays used to make e-book readers is soaring; an E Ink spokesman said this week at the Emerging Display Technologies conference in San Jose that orders for black-and-white displays used in the readers are tripling every year and are expected to reach 25 million to 30 million units this year.

Meanwhile, last year, 114 million e-books were sold — a 1,039 percent increase since 2008, according to the Association of American Publishers and the Book Industry Study Group said in a recently released survey. In contrast, 603 million "trade hardcover" books — both fiction and non-fiction — were sold last year, a 5.8 percent increase since 2008.

"One of the things you're seeing is that e-books been accepted extremely quickly," said Andi Sporkin, vice-president, communications of the Association of American Publishers. "When you look at the figures from three years ago, there's been a huge e-book surge, an exceptional acceptance of what is a new technology."

Ownership of e-readers like Amazon's Kindle and Barnes & Noble's Nook doubled from 6 percent last fall to 12 percent this spring among Americans, the Pew Internet & American Life Project noted in a recent report, saying it was the first time since Pew began measuring e-reader use in April 2009 "that ownership of this device has reached double digits among U.S. adults."

Amazon, which started the e-book juggernaut with the release of the first Kindle in 2007, said earlier this year that Kindle books — which can be read on phones, tablets and computers as well as the Kindle — overtook paperback books as the most popular format on Six months earlier, Kindle book sales exceeded hardcover book sales, Amazon said.

Indeed, not everyone who is reading e-books is doing so on Kindles, Nooks or iPads. Last fall, Forrester Research found that 7 percent of U.S. online adults who read e-books use other devices: 35 percent read electronically on their laptops; 15 percent use their iPhones, and 6 percent other cellphones.

The growing success of e-reader "has been fueled by the convenient availability of the most popular books in digital form, often priced significantly below their physical counterparts. This fact has drawn consumers in more rapidly than we have seen in any other media," wrote James L. McQuivey in Forrester's report, "eBook Buying Is About To Spiral Upward" last November.

While some argue that e-books have hurt book publishing and bookstores — alas, Borders, many of us despair at your bankruptcy — others say that the kind of figures shared above are proof that the opposite is true.

"Many of our member indie bookstores are now selling e-books," says Meg Smith of the American Booksellers Association. "Customers are asking independent bookstores how they can buy e-books and support their local bookstore. So, as always, our members are working to serve customers however they want to be served."

McQuivey said while it's still early on in the e-book world, Forrester believes that e-book readers "will end up buying (and reading) more books than they normally would read, simply because it is so convenient to do so."

The Association of American Publishers, in its survey, declares that "Americans, young and old, are reading actively in all print and digital formats," and perhaps that's what matters most to those who care about reading itself. Last year, net sales revenue in the "consumer-focused trade market" was $13.94 billion, an increase of 5.8 percent since 2008; both adult fiction and juvenile books (non-fiction and fiction) "have seen consistent annual gains."

E-books are generally cheaper than their hardcover brethren, but not always a great deal cheaper. Amazon, for example, sells Laura Hillenbrand's book, "Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption," at $12.99 for the Kindle version. A brand-new hardcover copy is $12.50 ordered from Amazon.

Similarly, Jaycee Dugard's autobiography, "A Stolen Life," is $11.99 for a Kindle version, but $11.76 for a hardcover one via Amazon.

These aren't huge differences, but they seem counter-intuitive when you think of the differences in the costs of producing a hardcover book vs. an electronic one. Shouldn't the savings be more?

"A majority of e-books sold in the U.S. by the largest publishers are sold at a fixed priced that is determined by the publisher," McQuivey said in an email interview. "Booksellers make no guarantees on sales, but they are given a flat 30 percent of whatever the sales price of the book is. So the e-books cost more than hardbacks and paperbacks in many cases, but the booksellers actually make more profit because they are guaranteed a 30 percent share."

It's a system, he said, that publishers "favored in order to keep the prices of e-books from falling to the $2.99 or 99-cents level — which is exactly what happens when publishers are not involved in setting the prices. Many of Knidle's bestsellers are priced at that level, often by a self-published author eager to make even a few dollars and even more eager to have a few people read their wares."

But it's "also a system that can't last for long," he believes. "As more and more people become accustomed to paying lower prices for good e-books, they'll start shying away from overpriced e-books. For now, people are just so excited to have the convenience of e-books, they don't mind the higher prices so much. But economics teaches us that markets eventually conform to the cost of producing something, not the desired price a seller fancies."

And while some authors are benefiting from the digital boom — John Locke recently became the eighth author to sell more than 1 million Kindle books and the first independently published author to do so — not all writers think e-books are a good thing for writers.

"The e-book does seem at the moment to threaten the livelihood of writers, because the way in which writers are paid for their work in the form of e-books is very much up in the air," Graham Swift, author of the award-winning book, "Last Orders" told the BBC in a recent interview, shared in part in The Telegraph.

"I think the tendency will be that writers will get even less than they get now for their work and sadly that could mean that some potential writers will see that they can't make a living, they will give up and the world would be poorer for the books they might have written, so in that way it is quite a serious prospect."

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