Ebooks are hot, but are publishers making money on them?

The ebook and e-reader market has exploded this year, but a new survey shows that doesn't mean publishers are raking in huge profits from them.

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A recent survey of 600 publishing houses cited by Publishers Weekly reveals some almost startling facts (more details available from Publishers Weekly):

  • 64% are now offering ebooks (74% in trade houses)
  • Of those avoiding ebooks, 71% had no particular reason to give as to why
  • 66% have no clear idea if they're even making money from ebook sales
  • 15% said return on investment was better than print titles
  • 13% said their return was lower than print titles

One reason given for such an unclear picture is that publishers may still be modifying their existing workflows to accommodate "printing" to ebook formats in addition to their traditional processes. As an author, who's worked with a publisher in the midst of a workflow transition, I can say it is not a simple process any of the teams involved. So, I would believe that many publishers simply haven't been able to make accurate calculations – and that the current ROI during or immediately following a transition is likely to be different from the eventual numbers that will be seen a year or two down the road.

In the end, how profitable the new ebook models are may be only a limited factor in the decision-making process for publishers. At the current rate of e-reader/ebook adoption, ebook sales will probably reach a critical mass that tips the balance of sales in their favor compared to print titles. It may not be in the next year or two, but it seems likely to happen eventually. Grudgingly or not, the publishers embracing ebooks and new workflows now will probably be the best suites to thrive once that point is reached. In fact nearly half of all publishers surveyed (49%) and more than half of trade publishers (55%) indicated ebooks were of "high importance" to their growth plans.

Ryan Faas writes about personal technology for ITworld. Learn more about Faas' published works and training and consulting services at www.ryanfaas.com. Follow him on Twitter @ryanfaas.

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