E-books and e-readers have been around for a while, but they've experienced a startling growth in converts this past year. A report by the Association of American Publishers shows that e-book sales were up 165 percent in 2010 from 2009, while hard-copy sales for that period only rose 3.6 percent. And last month, Amazon reported that its e-book sales surpassed both its hardcover and paperback business.
In 2010, e-book sales represented $49.5 million versus $11.7 billion for traditional books, and eMarketer estimated that 12% of U.S. adults will own an e-reader by 2012, up from 1.9% in 2009. It's an impressive rate of growth that portends major changes in how books are published.
Writers are no longer bound to the strict page-count standards of the industry. Because their books don't go to a physical press, they can turn in a work that's between the length of a short story and a novel. And now they can offer supplemental material.
"We've had some of our big, established writers write short pieces that tie into their full-length book - [pieces that] give you a little more about a certain character, or it helps set up the next book," said Liate Stehlik, publisher of Avon Impulse, the digital imprint of Avon Romance.
"We can get a book into the cycle in weeks if not a month or two, instead of the longer lead time with the print cycle," Stehlik said.
Sidestepping the printer results in fewer production costs, making it less risky for a publisher to take a chance on a new author, she said.
As a result, a major debate in the industry is how much e-books should cost. Tech guru and author Seth Godin even argues they should be free. And he's put his money (so to speak) where his mouth is, offering his own e-books as complimentary downloads since 2000.
Digital distribution is another big cost-saver for publishers. It's also a big time-saver. Under the old model, publishers must wait for returns from bookstores before they can calculate their exact sales. But Stehlik knows instantly if a book is selling or not.
"You really can see it daily, hourly," she said.
The end of the printed book?
It's tough to say if this is it for bound pages.
"I honestly don't think so. I think that there's still a distinct customer who prefers a print book," Stehlik said. "It's still hard to know exactly what you're going to read if you're not seeing it visually in a store sometimes."
"We took a survey back in March for our fourth anniversary and found that more than half of our respondents are not reading e-books at all," said Christine Onorati, owner of Word bookstore in Greenpoint. Word has offered Google e-books through its website since December.