USA Today reports that its next best-selling books list is going to show a milestone in the field of e-books: the e-book editions of the top six books on the list (and 19 books in all out of the top 50) outsold the print editions. This is the first time that the entire top fifty list has had more than two titles in which the e-book outsold the print.

The surge in e-book sales is largely due to a Christmas in which more e-book readers were gifted than ever before, and is not expected to last (a number of people who buy e-books will decide they don’t like them and not buy any more), but it will still lead to overall elevated numbers this year, and a further slipping of print’s lead over e in general.

Given that even with the publishers’ insistence on agency pricing, e-books are much cheaper than hardcovers, and hence e-book readers soon pay for themselves among frequent book purchasers, it’s not at all surprising that this trend is going to accelerate. And given that agency-priced e-books earn publishers less money than print books, times are going to become very interesting for publishers over the next few years.

I wonder how long it will take for the publishing industry to shed the inertia that keeps the present consignment system in place? With printed books losing market share, and computerized inventory and sales tracking more capable than ever, how much longer does it make sense to print twice as many copies as you’ll need and then pay for half of them to be shipped back and destroyed or resold? Not only does it waste money, it wastes trees.


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