Replacing Hard Copies with Digital?

A Tipping Point… Sort Of

By: Rob Sethreamazon-kindle

An interesting article appeared recently which is relevant for the imaging industry.

For the first time in its history, Amazon sold more electronic books for their Kindle product than hard copy books. While this development is inevitable (eventually), it was remarkable for several reasons:

  • Speed – Now? Already? That was fast! If anybody was watching the divergent trends of digital and analogue cameras at the time, they will recall that transition took place at a more leisurely pace. Years of anticipation preceded the actual event.
  • Magnitude – this was not a case whereby the electronic books just barely edged out hard copy sales. Over the past quarter, Amazon sold a whopping 143 e-books for every 100 hard copy books sold. In fact, it appears that the pace is accelerating: in the last four weeks, the ratio increased to 180:100, nearing a two-to-one ratio.
  • Competition – this boom took place during the launch of Apple’s iPad, which theoretically might have deflected sales away from Amazon’s Kindle product. Evidently not, at least as far as e-book sales went (Amazon does not publish Kindle hardware sales numbers).

Incredible. Sudden. A milestone. So what does this mean for the printing and imaging industry?

If we pursue MPS engagements aggressively and digitize more and more documents and workflows, how (and how quickly) will hard copy output be displaced? If this “inevitable” development is coming faster and stronger than many have been anticipating, how do we plan and time the shift?

One answer is that we need to be tracking and sizing the market constantly to anticipate such major developments. There was also an interesting sub-story: this development was in fact not the result of pure displacement. While industry (not only Amazon) e-book sales quadrupled in the past year, total hard copy book sales increased as well, by a healthy 22%. The first datapoint, digital book sales, is clearly driven by the maturity of the technology and broader consumer acceptance. But what drove hard copy sales? There may be a demographic component supporting short-term continuity, or actual usage patterns may be shifting – for example, favorable availability and pricing trends may have conspired to expand the average personal library.

Either way, the intriguing fact embedded in this article is that hard copy sales have not (yet) started to diminish – a new and highly complementary technology just continued to grow at a much faster pace.

Certainly there is a message in there for the imaging community as well.  The book business represents, first and foremost, consumer trends, and we must be cautious about extrapolating expectations to the world of business imaging. But there are technology and usage overlaps, and there is no reason to rule out the possibility that the same patterns may emerge as well.

One sensible response is to take care not to be locked into the hard copy world. The user organization has to be the consumer with a hard copy library as well as a Kindle (iPad, etc.). Vendors have to be like Amazon, who most certainly does not care whether that last book sold was hard copy or an e-book. They just want to be the source . . .

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  1. If we look at this trend in media and think about it, it of course makes sense. When we consider the importance of being mobile and traveling light, electronic media allows business people to carry copious amounts of information with them in the form of a compact Kindle or iPad. This convenience is priceless to all of the road warriors out there who travel 20+ days a month–a fact clearly recognized by software developers and manufacturers, evident by the ever increasing OCR applications available to convert hard copy media into e-Books. Conversely, Amazon is responding by enhancing device capabilities, offering compatibility applications for smart phones and computers, and advertising to consumers, “Buy Once, Read Everywhere.” The verdict is clear: electronic media is here to stay.