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(Mis)reading Between the Lines: Fifty Shades of the Avatar Effect

by on February 21, 2014

The 2013 sales numbers from the Association of American publishers are in, and in what may be seen as a surprising reversal – at least in comparison to recent years’ trends – hardcover books sales increased, while ebook sales have begun to level off:

  • – Hardcover book sales: up 11.5% to $778.6 million
  • – Ebook sales: up 4.8% to $647.7 million
  • – Paperback sales down 11.6% to $898.9 million [1]

What Gives?
Publishers in recent years have become accustomed to the trend of the ebook sales doubling and tripling with hardcover sales falling. The common sense straightforward explanation to this was that ebooks were cheaper (and inversely, hardcover was more expensive) and print was more cumbersome (while ebooks were infinitely more portable), and the industry expected (and still expects) to see print sales gradually decrease while eBooks sales assume the opposite trajectory. Naturally then, when the opposite occurs, as the numbers this year evidence, something flags awry (as well it should) and speculations begin. Often it’s either in the large print: our big picture forecasting is off (which ultimately reflects a misunderstanding of consumer behaviors and their marketplace translation), or poor projections of theory vs. reality (maybe better stated as reality in defiance of theory); or in the small print: the data doesn’t reflect the real story.

While it’s difficult to project the former just yet it could be suggested that elongated projections of ereader and tablet sales doesn’t seem to take in consideration the inevitable device sales plateau accompanying a upgrade/maintenance marketplace. asTthis year’s stat reversal “anomaly” reflected in ebook sales really seems a case of the later. Though there have been indications that fall books started shipping earlier this year – whereas in 2012, titles were held till post-election – the most obvious explanation further showcases that an eReader or tablet is simply a vessel, and conditionally only as appealing as, the content it provides.

2011 and 2012 were endowed heavily by titanic titles The Hunger Games and Fifty Shades of Grey. Not only were both best sellers, they were both bestselling trilogies ($ x $ = $$), AND both instanced especially well on eReaders – The Hunger Games because it appealed to a younger, more device-willing audience, and Fifty Shades of Grey because, well, there was no exterior book-jacket to publicly reveal your indulgence.

In the cinema world (and, more specifically, the home entertainment industry), this phenomenon is known as “The Avatar Effect,” which frankly, you’d think we’d more widely understand by now (what with the decades of trilogies, sequels, prequels, and franchises that have graced our pocketbooks). What is perhaps misleading about the percentage portion of these stats is that they are often measured in isolation of cultural context. They are too generally considered (mistake one), then applied as a blanketed trend projection (mistake two). While they do generally reveal tech trends and reflect consumer tendency and confidence in particular formats, they don’t consider the effect certain titles have individually on a market place (which further reveals the dependency and extent to which the effectiveness of tech devices hinges on content). In 2010, Avatar was the biggest (though not the first) film to influence greatly (and effectively skew) consumer spending reports (and further, projections), as the all-time box office champ sold 12 million DVD/Blu-ray products in the second quarter of 2010 alone, demonstrating once again the immense effect studios and their films have on the economics of the entertainment industry. Same thing goes for books – Twilight might not have seen the light of day (or moon) if it weren’t for Harry Potter.

What the Stats Really Mean
We’re wired to see (and want to see) trends and patterns, often not beyond inventing them, and in doing so, often consider general factors more weightily than specific, often pivotal ones. Hindsight being 20/20, we probably should’ve taken the past few years’ dramatically upward slanting sales reports of both ereader and ebooks with a grain of salt. Every boom has a plateau – supply eventually meets demand – and firstly, there has/had to be one with eReaders/tablets, and secondly there would/will be one with eBooks. After the initial excitement, consumers acclimatize and the device/format is brought to domestic reality. The eReader/book is finding its place in peoples’ lives, just as the printed book has– is it that shocking to see (when doing your own informal “polling”) that people like to read print at home and e-versions when travelling or on the go? Wasn’t that what we thought in “the beginning” anyways? Will there be an eventual usurpation? Hard to say, but as our tactile and physical bodies aren’t going anywhere any time soon, I’d say that coexistence is the better bet.

(1) “Adult Ebooks Up Slightly in 2013, Hardcovers Up Double Digits.” Digital Book World, December 19, 2013. http://www.digitalbookworld.com/2013/adult-ebooks-up-slightly-in-2013-through-august-hardocovers-up-double-digits/
(2) Malczewski, Ben. “Still Loading – AV Spotlight on Streaming Video.” Library Journal. December 19, 2013. http://lj.libraryjournal.com/2011/12/industry-news/still-loading-av-spotlight-on-streaming-video/#_

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