Friday, November 20, 2009

Inevitability of e-book success?

Bloomberg ran a story Friday focusing on the adoption of e-books in college classrooms:

As Sony Corp.’s e-book devices vie with the Kindle to win over readers, the real showdown may come later: when a shift to electronic textbooks at schools threatens to eclipse the current market for the products.

Within five years, textbooks will be the biggest market for e-book devices, dwarfing sales to casual readers, predicts Sarah Epps, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Corning Inc., which is developing glass screens for e-readers, expects textbooks to fuel about 80 percent of demand for those components by 2019.

“Print will expire faster in the textbook world than in the trade book world,” Epps said. “The technical barriers will disappear and five years is enough for the content to catch up with demand. The potential is there.”

“The Millennials are very comfortable reading things online in a way their parents and grandparents are not,” said San Jose State University Professor Joel West, referring to the generation born in recent decades. “We will be seeing electronic textbooks become commonplace in the next 10 years.”
I said a lot of other things when interviewed about this a few months back:
  • Amazon‘s achilles heel is the proprietary mobi format against everyone else’s e-pub, but if college students are using a book viewer for 4 years and renting books for one semester, this becomes almost a non-issue.
  • Moving from selling dead tree books (with printing costs and inventory risk) to renting e-books will reduce the publishers’ costs dramatically. If publishers don’t share those savings with consumers — given the student and politician outcry about textbook prices — there will be hell to pay. I suspect, however, that most will play games with planned obsolescence in hopes of keeping their margins up.
  • I doubt that e-book reader is a separate category over the long term. To me, it seems obvious that the e-reader will go the way of the pocket camera and the MP3 player as a dead-end stand-alone device.
The unfortunate thing for Amazon and its Kindle lead is that it’s much easier for other publishers to attract the relatively small list of best-selling college texts than it is to attract a full range of popular books.

On the other hand, I think the textbook market could allow Amazon an opportunity to exit the reader business — as I believe it inevitably will — and focus on its core competence of distribution (presumably at that point indifferent as to format). Under this scenario, rapid growth in the textbook market could very well force a disaggregation of the market into distributors and players.

So Sony and Apple (and perhaps Nokia and Dell) will be competing on the hardware side and Amazon/B&N competing on the distribution side. Colleges generally shy away from mandating a particular vendor for other hardware, so I think “buy an e-pub reader” is more likely to catch on with college syllabi than “buy a Kindle.”

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