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E-book sales keep growing despite twists, turns and obstacles

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 26 2012 10:30 a.m. MST

Emily Fernandez, holding her daughter Bethany, 2, uses her Nook e-reader to browse through some books at a Barnes & Noble in Hackensack, N.J., Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2010.  (Mark Lennihan, ASSOCIATED PRESS) Emily Fernandez, holding her daughter Bethany, 2, uses her Nook e-reader to browse through some books at a Barnes & Noble in Hackensack, N.J., Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2010. (Mark Lennihan, ASSOCIATED PRESS)

With the ongoing proliferation of tablets — CNET’s Jonathan Skillings reported earlier this month that worldwide sales of tablets are expected to exceed 122 million units during 2012, up from 73 million in 2011 — it follows that consumers are buying greater numbers of e-books to read on all those new devices.

However, the growth rate of e-book sales is lagging behind recent precedent: Following four straight years of sales figures that doubled year-over-year, sales of e-books are up “only” 34 percent in 2012. Not coincidentally, widespread forecasts of an impending “e-book price war” never actualized.

On Monday The New York Times reported, “Right about now, just as millions of e-readers and tablets are being slipped under Christmas trees, there was supposed to be a ferocious price war over e-books. … The major publishers and traditional bookstores were contemplating a future that would pass them by. But doomsday has not arrived, at least not yet. … One big reason for the lack of fireworks is that the triumph of e-books over their physical brethren is not happening quite as fast as forecast.”

The event that was supposed to spur an e-book price war occurred earlier this year when the Justice Department sued Apple and major publishing houses for allegedly colluding to maintain inflated e-book prices.

“The crackdown sent prices downward but never resulted in an all-out pricing war among sellers,” Tal Kopan wrote Monday for Politico. “So this holiday season some best-sellers like ‘50 Shades of Grey’ are going for 10 bucks on Amazon, when they were closer to $15 last year. … But don’t expect prices to keep dropping. Even though the settlements prevent publishers from setting prices, they do allow publishers (to) put limits on how low prices can go.”

Despite the widespread success of e-books, public libraries remain a venue where the all-digital medium has struggled to take hold. As the Deseret News’ Michael De Groote detailed on Dec. 17, it’s the publishers themselves who are actually the biggest barriers to entry, keeping e-books out of public libraries.

“Publishers are reluctant to let the public have the same library access to e-books that they have to physical books,” De Groote wrote. “They fear a loss of sales. … Publishers see a difference between lending out physical books and e-books. In the physical world, a patron drives to a library, checks out a book and has to drive back to return it. There are a lot of steps, and it takes effort.”

In related news, Amazon recently deleted thousands of the customer book reviews that are increasingly necessary to catalyze brisk book sales.

“After several well-publicized cases involving writers buying or manipulating their reviews, Amazon is cracking down,” David Streitfeld reported Sunday for The New York Times. “Writers say thousands of reviews have been deleted from the shopping site in recent months. … Once a populist gimmick, the reviews are vital to making sure a new product is not lost in the digital wilderness. Amazon has refined the reviewing process over the years, giving customers the opportunity to rate reviews and comment on them. It is layer after layer of possible criticism.”

Jamshid Ghazi Askar is a graduate of BYU's J. Reuben Clark Law School and member of the Utah State Bar. Contact him at jaskar@desnews.com or 801-236-6051.

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