On The Certain Economics Of Relegating Paper Books To The Margins Of The Business

Time to get my hands a bit dirty. Last week I posted an eBook forecast with a brief explanation of why the book business may complete its digital revolution more quickly than other media businesses have. Turns out this assertion was more difficult to hear than I anticipated and I got some very insistent (and worth reading) comments. The discussion that ensued both on the blog and outside of it was very complex, this is not a simple matter. However, there are parts of it that are very simple that I have to clarify, even though it means rolling up my sleeves a bit. Allow me to draw into this discussion John Thompson of Cambridge University who gave a very worthwhile interview to the Brooklyn Rail this month to discuss his recently published analysis of the book industry,  Merchants of Culture. I will refer to just one of his specific comments:

"There are many people who just love books and they love the ideas that are expressed in books; they love the stories that are told through books and all of it. They’re very attached to it.... They cherish the book. And they believe that this is an artifact that they want in their lives. And some of the technological commentators in this industry just completely miss this point."

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Netflix Is Now Primarily A Digital Video Company

Netflix announced its Q3 2010 earnings a few weeks back and the numbers were every bit as positive as people have expected. The company added nearly 2 million subscribers in the quarter, almost four times as many subs as they added the same quarter last year. Yeah, four times as many. While Comcast and Time Warner announced net subscriber losses. At the same time, the cost for Netflix to acquire a customer has fallen 26% in the past year. Funny how when you digitize the customer relationship and the product at the same time, all your costs go down.

The number I always wait for from Netflix is the percent of subscribers that used Netflix Watch Instantly in the quarter. It rose to 66% this quarter, up from 64% last quarter. And remember, this was while adding 2 million new subscribers, which means that new subscribers are adopting Watch Instantly at a rapid rate instead of waiting to get used to Netflix; in fact, they're probably joining Netflix just to watch instantly. This is, of course, why Netflix will likely offer a digital-only plan that subscribers can pay for if they don't even want to pretend to put DVDs in their queue. 

Why is this important today? Because it was just now that I finally dug through the summary financial results to find this gem of a quote, something that was briefly reported when Netflix announced it results, but was not fully understood in most of the reports I read. I want to resurface it because this is a big deal: 

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eBooks Ready To Climb Past $1 Billion

Consider it an inauguration of sorts, a celebration of the eBook industry becoming a member of the major media club just as digital music and online video have before them. When you influence a billion dollars, people have to take you seriously. In the book business, it means that traditional publishers can no longer live in deny-and-delay mode; meanwhile, digital publishers get invited to better parties and people in other media businesses like TV and magazines look over and wonder if they could cut a slice of this new pie just for them.

To honor the occasion, we have just published our five-year forecast for eBooks in the US for Forrester clients. The punchline is this: 2010 will end with $966 million in eBooks sold to consumers. By 2015, the industry will have nearly tripled to almost $3 billion, a point at which the industry will be forever altered.

Right now, the number to track – and the one that determines how many eBooks will sell – is the percent of a consumer’s books that are bought and consumed digitally. To get at this number, we have to understand how people get books today. Did you know that the two most common ways people get books today is borrowing them from a friend or getting them from the library? Evidently content – at least in the book business – is already quite free, even without the help of digital.

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