eBook sales look set to outgrow printed book sales as the ebook reader market diversifies and the technology finally matures. With well over 120,000,000 ebook-capable mobile devices now in consumers’ hands there is clearly a huge market for publishing pixels.

The reach of eBook stores will continue to grow as the increasing competition pushes down prices in the eBook reader market and more people upgrade to smarter phones. Amazon has already done amazingly well to sell an estimated 3 million Kindles considering it is only available online. Super-secretive Amazon now appear to be rolling out bricks-and-mortar retail distribution with US chain Target announcing that the device would be available in its 1740 stores.

If the claims of many avid eBook fans that reading on ‘ePaper’ screens as found on dedicated devices like the Kindle and Sony Reader is vastly superior to the back-lit displays found on multi-purpose units like Apple’s iPad are true, then Amazon and Sony might be able to wrestle market share from Apple when consumers hold the devices side-by-side.

ePaper or electronic Paper is a display technology designed to mimic real paper. The screen is not back lit so it reflects light just like a book would. It is capable of displaying text indefinitely without drawing any power, so ePaper devices tend to have very long battery lives. ePaper displays can be read in direct sunlight making them ideal for ebook readers however they are only available in black and white.

Sales of the ebooks are also looking very healthy. In November 2009 an Amazon spokesperson claimed that the company sells 48 kindle books for every 100 physical with sales of Kindle books expected to “double in 2010″. In January 2010 Jeff Bezos trumped that claim stating that “When we have both editions, we sell 6 Kindle books for every 10 physical books. This is year-to-date and includes only paid books — free Kindle books would make the number even higher.”. Furthermore, over the 2009 Christmas period sales of Kindle books exceed sales of physical books.

While no unit figures are released, according to Reuters 25% of Amazon’s $25.5 billion annual revenue comes from selling physical books. If the 48/100 claim is to be believed then the company must be selling 212 books per device. (Based on a notional average price of $10 an estimated 3 million devices). Clearly this cannot be accurate, but we can see that ebooks are moving off digital shelves rapidly. A report by Forrester has found that people who buy e-readers have increased their book purchases 50 percent.

Many digital titles are only marginally cheaper than their bound counterparts at the moment. But competition in the eBook marketplace from Apple’s iBookstore may drive prices down to a point where digital editions are priced aggressively enough to make consumers switch. Once this point is reached one would expect a surge in sales of both titles and devices capable of reading them. Apple requires that pricing for e-book versions should be less than a print version if one is available, and there are limits to the maximum iBookstore price for the first 12 months after release depending on the price of the print edition.

Some authors are now questioning whether they need publishers at all. Thriller author Joe Konrath published detailed figures of his Kindle and eBook sales from last year demonstrating that if he had electronic distribution rights for his books he could easily be earning far more than the royalties from his print contracts with publishing houses. He concluded by saying ” I don’t think I’ll ever take a print contract for less than $30,000 per book, because I’m confident I could make more money on it over the course of six years than I could with a publisher over six years.”

This nicheification of book publishing is similar to the one we have seen with music and news(papers) over the last decade and also looks to be on the horizon for TV and Video. Old business models based on scarcity of supply are being rapidly eroded by unlimited choice with content producers connecting directly with consumers in a low cost digital world.

If I could write I might consider publishing a book myself.

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