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E-Books Finally Impact Bestseller Market

A good portion of the worldwide publishing industry is gathered in Frankfurt this week for the traditional book business jamboree. The real work is being done by agents and foreign rights managers as well as a few editors looking for new product suitable to their various markets. Much of what goes on in the international halls is a waste of time and money for a industry that has neither in great surplus.

This point was brought home by the British newspaper, The Independent, when it published a long article bemoaning the "parlous state" of publishing with its year-on-year sales declines, slowing acquisitions and drooping advances for authors. John Walsh, the article's author, went so far as to wonder whether "Will these authors, agents, publishers and booksellers be speaking to each other next year, after the current toxic dust has settled? Will they all, by then, be doing each other's jobs? Or just doing each other out of a job?"

Apocalyptic stuff. Not wholly unjustified though. The speed at which e-books are taking over the publishing industry is truly breathtaking. The same Independent article throws around the statistic that 35% of the 1 million copies of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom were e-books. That's 350,000 copies sold.

An article in The New York Times that mistakenly fixated on the price of some e-books also contained the impressive information that Ken Follet's latest thousand-page bestseller sold 20,000 copies in the e-book format during its first seven days on sale. Selling 20,000 copies of anything would get an author onto one of the top spots on the New York Times bestseller list.

These numbers tell us something important about ebook sales: they are heavily weighted toward the big-name, front list authors. E-book sales may only be projected to reach 10% of total book sales in a couple of years because of the size of the industry's backlist and the huge percentage of "long-tail" sales.

The engine of change in the industry sits in the head, among the top-selling authors and items. These are the books that were super-charged in sales by the emergence of the superstores and the industry's improved logistics that allowed bestsellers to be heavily discounted in supermarkets and big-box retailers like Costco. The six big publishers chased those sales as they migrated out of bookstores which is one reason that Barnes & Noble and Borders are limping along today.

Transforming the top end of the business changes the whole of the business. The current economics of publishing is front-loaded. In a previous generation, the business was ballasted by backlist but no longer. Like a movie studio, book publishers thrive on sugar-rush of big ephemeral hits.

We're now seeing that this is exactly what e-books will have the most effect upon. What that effect will be, we don't know. Electronic distribution favors instant gratification or works that get a lot of publicity. This isn't entirely new. Amazon's bestseller list -- it's Top 100 -- has been twitchy and volatile for a decade or more. Titles rise up rapidly in response to a media hit but fall off quickly too.

Were Franzen's 350,000 e-book sales compressed into a short window around the announcement that Oprah had chosen it for her final book club? Probably. Were Follett's 20,000 copies going to his loyal readers and pulling forward sales that might have taken a few weeks to consummate? Possibly. Will the unsubstantiality of e-books (the fact that no physical book is visible when the reader is reading or after) effect the overall patterns of book sales? Surely.

The book business was -- and in many ways remains -- the ultimate word of mouth business. Lacking the marketing dollars of the other mass media, books have always been sold in what can only be described as "the great chain of publishing," which is something like a big game of "telephone" where one person passes along excitement and enthusiasm to another.

Many books still become bestsellers in this manner. And one could make the case that book sales could benefit massively from adding e-books to the normal sales process. Imagine no longer having to make a note to yourself to buy a book upon a friend's recommendation. With cheaper e-books and instantaneous purchasing, the hurdle to sales on the most popular and engaging books should be lower.

On the other hand, what makes books -- especially novels -- sell is the sense of building an "in group" based upon a shared experience. There's the danger that an faster sales cycle could short-circuit this process that still needs to take place at a very human speed.

It will take some time to answer these questions but the strong e-book sales from Follett and Franzen suggest the publishing industry will be dealing with them seriously in 2011.