January 31, 2018

A flurry of activity in the long-stagnant e-book market


The object in question.

A pair of recent announcements from Walmart and Apple have given the American e-book market a shot in the arm. Last Thursday, Walmart announced on their corporate blog that they would be forming an “alliance” with Rakuten, the Japanese online retail conglomerate that, in 2012, acquired Canadia-based Kobo Inc. That same day, Bloomberg writer Mark Gurman reported that Apple would be revamping their iBooks platform (now called Apple Books) sometime in the next few months, perhaps signalling that, after a landmark ruling against Apple by the U.S. Supreme Court, the tech giant is ready to jump back into e-book mortal combat with Amazon.

The timing of both decisions will have some scratching their heads. As Bill Rosenblatt, writing at Forbes, points out, e-book sales have been in the doldrums for about five years now, during which Amazon has continued to strengthen its near-monopoly on the market. According to numbers crunched by Author Earnings in early 2017, Amazon now controls eighty-three percent of the US eb-ook market. By contrast, Apple accounts for ten percent. Together, Kobo and Barnes and Noble control another five.

So why is Walmart, the world’s largest company by revenue, electing to get into the game now? And why is Apple, already rebuked in its attempt to compete with Amazon, dipping its toes back in the pool?

Walmart’s Kobo deal is part of a larger strategic partnership with Rakuten, which, according to another Walmart blog post (they have a very active blog, I guess?) will see the two retail giants teaming up on same-day grocery delivery service, to be rolled out in Japan sometime this year. That’s probably the most significant development of the deal, as it could put Walmart a better position to compete with Amazon in the online retail market.

But the e-book deal is interesting in in its own right. Walmart will become the exclusive retailer for Kobo e-readers, and will launch a co-branded reading app, integrated into Walmart’s online retail operations and operating independently of Kobo’s already-existing iOS and Android apps. Rosenblatt speculates that this may lead to various print and e-book (P+E) bundling schemes.  Previous P+E efforts, like Amazon’s MatchBook and Shelfie (which Kobo acquired last year), have failed, partly because publishers weren’t on board. But Rosenblatt imagines Walmart and Rakuten betting that Amazon’s increasing dominance will have softened their revolve in the interim.

Rosenblatt is somewhat dismissive of Apple’s move, suggesting the update to iBooks is “not so much about e-books per se as it is about keeping Apple’s panoply of content offerings up to date.” As he points out, the first wave of changes have been largely cosmetic, bringing the app into line with other content platforms on iOS. And, as Gurman points out in his Bloomberg piece, this makes sense, given that Apple is primarily a hardware business: they’re improving their book app not because they want to sell more books, but because a cleaner, more unified user experience makes the iPhone a more attractive piece of tech.

One piece of news that gets downplayed in this account is Apple’s hiring of Kashif Zafar. Zafar was brought on in December as Global Head of iBooks, having previously worked as an executive at Amazon’s Audible and Barnes and Noble’s Nook divisions. Now, I am a rube and a chump and not a global elite or mega-CEO, but if I were running a business and wanted to make some minor aesthetic changes to a third-tier app, I would not pay millions of dollars to hire away an executive from my biggest competitor to oversee them.

While Rosenblatt’s analysis seems sound, it doesn’t quite account for the most puzzling question posed by both moves: why now? In the Forbes piece, Rosenblatt cites Author Earnings data from 2016, showing that e-books account for about twenty percent of trade publishing sales. This represents a slight decline from 2013, when folks were worried that e-books would eventually gobble up the majority of book sales in the US.

But new data out of Author Earnings for 2017 suggests that this isn’t the whole story. While e-books account for fifty-five percent of all book sales by unit, and only twenty percent by dollar amount, this data obscures the fact that “a huge chunk of those print dollars are actually going to textbooks and other academic/professional print titles.” If you filter out textbook and academic sales and focus only on trade fiction and non-fiction, the results are surprising: e-books account for seventy percent of unit sales, and thirty percent of revenue (audiobooks represent another twelve percent or so of revenue). If you isolate fiction, the results are even starker, with almost eighty percent of unit sales and and fifty-five percent of revenue coming from e-books.

It might also be worth noting that, while Amazon is currently dominant in the online print and e-book market, its global reach doesn’t quite match that of other platforms. Again according to Author Earnings, there are currently “12 country-specific Amazon stores, 36 country-specific Kobo ebook stores, and over 40 country-specific Apple ebook stores.” Which, if you were betting on a more competitive, and more globalized, market, would mean that Kobo and Apple already have infrastructure and market share in a good many places that Amazon hasn’t needed to reach.

As is always the case, much depends on how aggressively and consistently Apple and Walmart pursue e-book market share in the years to come. But more competition, even if it comes from two colossal conglomerates, will hopefully make for a more lively and healthy online retail environment.



Simon Reichley is the Director of Operations and Rights Manager at Melville House.