10 years of Kindle: What sells - ebooks or physical ones? Tracking the market trends
It was back in 2006 at the Frankfurt Book Fair, the world’s largest trade fair for books, that a lot of Indian publishers first heard about an e-reader, picking up on the buzz around the newly-launched Sony E-Reader, one of the first to use the famous E-Ink technology. It seemed like reading was at the brink of changing at a very fundamental level.
Ananth Padmanabhan, the CEO of HarperCollins India (HCI), was there too. “My then colleague from the US had the device”, recounts Padmanabham. “I very vividly remember seeing the first ebook download onto it. The sheer convenience… it was revolutionary!”
A year later, and exactly ten years ago from today, Amazon’s Kindle launched in the US, both beginning, and spearheading the ebook movement. Soon, other e-readers like Barnes & Nobles’ Nook and the Kobo eReader would follow, launching in 2009 and 2010 respectively (the iPad was launched at the start of 2010 as well).
“In 2009, on an editor’s trip organised by the German Book Office, I was taking a train from Munich to Berlin with Ravi DeeCee (managing partner of DC Books), who had a Kindle with him. That was the first time I’d handled one”, recalls Arpita Das, the co-founder of Yoda Press. “I was blown away by the fact that I could flip a book! I kept flipping and flipping the book for so many minutes that Ravi took it away from me for the fear that I might do it some damage.”
But as it is with almost every new technology, the e-reader had its share of critics, and not everyone was quite as impressed. The most common question was – ‘Why would we read on this?’ A publisher I spoke to remembers how, when confronted by the e-reader, panel discussions across the country emphasised on the tactility of the book – the touch, the smell and the pleasure of turning the page. Would a device that offered you a reading experience devoid of all these aspects really work? There were doubts.
And yet, the idea caught on, and before long, India had launched its own set of e-readers. Infibeam’s Pi hit the market in the early 2010 and EC Media’s Wink was launched later that same year. Neither could really make their mark though, and with the gradual rise of smartphones and tablets, both exited the market before 2012 rolled around.
And then, in the August of 2012, Amazon first made the Kindle available in India, at the starting price of Rs. 6,999. Before that, Indians looking to own a Kindle had to have the device internationally shipped and sometimes pay up to $80 in shipping and import fee deposits alone. The Kindle’s entry in the Indian market meant that the movement had well and truly reached us. By November Flipkart too started selling its own ebooks.
Of course, with this movement came both the concerns and the challenges associated with it. Would ebooks cannibalise the space and sale of physical books? Interestingly, despite ebooks posing a threat to brick and mortar bookstores, Indian publishers largely thought of the format as just another platform to capture their tech-savvy young readers. Perhaps this was how they’d get back the readers they were losing to the screen.
Indian publishers predicted that over the next few years ebooks would contribute to between 15-20 per cent of their total revenue, tracing the path that publishers had seen internationally. And gradually, the ebooks market did grow. Content became accessible on more platforms, including smartphones and tablets, especially with the increase in their screen sizes. The self-publishing market grew as budding authors could now easily upload their works on platforms like Scribd, Wattpad, Smashwords and Amazon’s Digital Text Platform.
The first hitch in the largely positive predictions came in 2015, when, the American Association of Publishers (AAP) and UK’s Publishers’ Association reported a dip in the sale of ebooks. With no equivalent of the AAP or UK’s Publishers’ Association in India (Nielsen only tracks the sale of physical books), the dip in the numbers was projected for the Indian market too. But Amazon, one of the largest platforms for ebooks, in its annual report, recorded an increase in both their revenue and the numbers of ebooks they sold that year.
And then, earlier this year in February, AAP once again reported that the sale of ebooks in the US had dropped by 18.7 per cent in the first nine months of 2016. Fans of the physical book rejoiced. There was a sense of joy, especially among the purists, that readers still took pleasure in the traditional form of reading.
But while considering the surveys conducted by these associations, it is important to remember a few aspects that might be affecting the figures. For example, both AAP and the UK’s Publishers’ Association do not consider subscription based platforms such as Scribd and Kindle Unlimited, which were launched in 2013 and 2014 respectively. Additionally, trends like the adult colouring book gave rise to physical sales last year.
Even then, it is clear that the two most common and early predictions about the ebook did not come to pass – neither did they cannibalise the physical book, nor did the ebook market grow at the rate that Indian publishers had predicted they would. What seems to have happened, though, is that ebooks managed to find their own comfortable space in the market - despite the rampant piracy prevailing in the country.
And there is no data to support that they are on the decline. In fact, quite the contrary.
The 2015 Nielsen India Book Market Report said that 70 per cent publishers had digitised their content. Amazon, after launching Kindle Unlimited in September of 2015 in the country, reported later that year that it had tripled its Kindle India business and was looking at a “200% year-on-year” growth. The year also saw a rise in digital publishing for regional language publishers such as Dailyhunt, Pratilipi and Matrubharti.
In the September of 2016, Juggernaut, India’s first “phone publisher”, was founded by Chiki Sarkar and Durga Raghunath. Juggernaut entered the market as a digital publisher that aimed to sell books via its mobile app and target the country’s vast pool of smartphone readers.
Last year Amazon further expanded its reach by launching ebooks in five regional languages - Hindi, Tamil, Marathi, Gujarati, and Malayalam and later that year, reported 80 per cent growth in sales due to this, adding that ebooks had outstripped physical books for Amazon.
As far as the numbers for the current Indian ebook market go, they seem to vary depending on who you ask. “Over the last few years we’ve seen ebooks growing at a steady higher double digit growth - directly attributed to the increase in device sales,” says Padmanabhan, adding that ebooks contribute 8 per cent to the overall sales at HCI and that the overall market seems to be at 7-8 per cent. Multiple publishers confirm this figure, while a few others seem surprised by it.
Yogesh Sharma, vice-president, sales and marketing, Bloomsbury India, told me that they have seen significant growth in ebooks in the last years. From nothing to them contributing 2.5-3 per cent of their overall revenue. “Last year we grew by approximately 30 per cent”, adding that the overall Indian market seems to be 2-3 per cent as well.
Rukun Kaul, the digital head at Penguin Random House India (PRHI), says that the growth in ebooks has been incremental for the company. “Not just for PRHI, but for the industry in general”, she adds, but keeps from divulging any numbers.
Anish Chandy, the business development and sales head at Juggernaut tells me, that ebook growth has been ‘exponential’ for them in the last year. But for a publisher whose primary target are smartphone users, the company still publishes some physical books and that is where it gets most of its revenue from.
Over the years, digital platforms have significantly improved and offered a wide range of accessibility to their readers. Kindle for example, from the time it was first introduced, has got rid of its bulky body and its clunky keyboard and has designed for itself a much more user-friendly and stylish interface, introducing advanced ergonomic design. Adding facility for wifi and 3G along the way, to the breakthrough of adding backlight in 1st Generation Kindle Paperwhite (2012) to the latest sleek 2nd Generation Kindle Oasis with water resistancy, so that you can actually read inside your shower if you want.
Access to the Kindle bookstore also means that now, readers have access to books from across the world, and at more or less uniform prices; not to mention the classics, which are available for free. The device also lets you change fonts, increase text size (a feature especially useful for older readers), and carry your entire library with you, no matter where you go. In fact, you don’t even have to buy a Kindle any more. Now, you have several apps available on your smartphone that allow you access to ebooks – from the official Kindle app to Google Books, Juggernaut and Scribd.
Despite all this, there are various factors that affect the growth of ebooks to their full potential, not just in our country but worldwide. “People still enjoy reading a physical book”, points out Chandy. “It is perceived to be an escape from being constantly connected.” A form of ‘digital detox’, bringing with it a sense of being ‘unplugged’.
Moreover, the physical quality of books has also improved appreciably in the last decade. Readers haven’t failed to notice that publishers are now paying more attention to aesthetics.
On Instagram one can find millions of pictures with the hashtag “#bookstagram” dedicated to good-looking books. A popular Indian run account @thebooksatchel by book blogger Resh Susan has a following of over 25k and one can’t help but covet the books in the beautiful photographs Resh uploads.
One can find a few pictures of Kindles in her posts as well. When I ask her to compare the two, she admits that she prefers to read books in the physical form. But adds that when travelling, she only carries the Kindle. It can especially be a life-saver, she says, when the physical book is expensive and/or is a door-stopper. “It helps me cheat myself into thinking the book isn’t that large since I cannot physically view the size.”
Like Resh, several people have discovered a new joy in reading through this technology, but there are still many who find it hard to read on a screen. After all, there are still a large number of readers that have known a world without social media and a screen in every pocket.
And even readers who do read ebooks on a regular basis still prefer some books in their physical form – graphic novels and comics being the obvious ones, as their experience is not replicated well across e-versions.
Apart from the usual bestsellers, ebooks tend to do slightly better with genres such as self-help and romance. Chandy tells me that the genres that do well for Juggernaut includes “non-fiction that’s trending, classics and erotica”. He also adds that the new literary fiction sells the least.
To especially target e-readers, publishers are releasing micro content. “We have an e-imprint called Penguin Petite for our short form content”, says Kaul. The books in the e-imprint are priced at Rs. 15. Juggernaut too has books under 30 pages and a list categorised under “Love Shorts”. Another example is Westland’s Short Reads comprising of short essays and extracts. Some publishers are also looking at releasing chapters in a serialised form, reminiscent of the origin of the novel itself, going all the way back to Charles Dickens.
Meanwhile, free online reading communities such as Wattpad, where people can readily upload their written work and read those by others, are changing our perception of what publishing can be. Juggernaut too offers writers a platform to upload their work and feature it alongside other published writers, and offers to give them author contracts once they receive a certain number of views and positive reviews.
Though by far one of the largest untapped markets still remains regional language publishing. With Kindle’s introduction to regional languages, things have started to change for some. Manjul Publishing House, which publishes international bestseller translations in about 10 different Indian languages, is one such example. “Around 15% of our sales are from ebooks these days”, their editorial director Manoj Kulkarni informs me.
Of course, this isn’t the case with every regional publisher. Some are yet to make use of the opportunities this format offers. One of the biggest Gujarati language publishers, Navbharat Sahitya Mandir, for example, hasn’t yet started selling ebooks. “There is still no awareness about ebooks here”, explains Ronak Shah, their head of marketing, adding that one of the biggest problem for regional languages readers is that that they cannot search using the script of their own language online.
So, almost a decade and some revised predictions later, what does the future of ebooks in India look like? When I ask publishers, almost every one of them talks unanimously about better reach, accessibility, affordability and greater convenience. As for whether the format itself will change, it seems harder to predict. Opinions vary, but most believe that it won’t.
For now, the ebook still remains a format that tries to mirror the physical book, trying to replicate feel and the turn of the page digitally – a sure sign that we are still early in its evolution, and still thinking of it as an offshoot or extension of the physical book, giving ourselves a box to think inside.
But we know that with time, technology tends to break the limits we set for it. I agree with Das when she explains that there were centuries in between the time that the Guttenberg printing press was invented and the time we first got paperbacks book. “The ebook, too, is going to take some time to find a different shape.”
And while the physical book still dominates the Indian book market, it’s safe to say that given the rapid rise in the use of technology, ebooks will only rise in this country. Albeit, at its own pace.