The Differential Rates Of Digital Change Problem

There’s an issue I’ve been exploring on this blog and elsewhere for some time. It’s about digital change and what it does to large and small markets, especially when the rates of change in these markets differ. I’ve called it the differential rates of digital change problem and I think it is time I put a solid definition on it.

So here it goes. The Differential Rates Of Digital Change Problem occurs:

When a large publishing market undergoes a more rapid shift towards digital delivery and consumption of books than a smaller publishing market.

This change has many significant implications but the three I want to focus on here are:

  • Rights pressure on small market publishers
  • Sales pressure on small market publishers
  • Growing disparity between ACTUAL digital change in small markets and OBSERVABLE digital change

Let’s look at these one by one.

Rights Pressure
I’ve highlighted how larger market publishers increasingly have an incentive to acquire global digital rights in works, whereas, as of yet, smaller market publishers have little incentive to hold on to those rights, though they know that in the future they will need them. I’ve pointed to one possible way to meet both needs here.

Sales Pressure
This is almost a bigger deal for small markets. And it has a few forms.

  1. Digital sales of titles not necessarily available in the smaller market to customers in the smaller market recorded as sales in larger markets (eg Kindle Sales to Irish customers via or
  2. Digital sales of titles available in smaller markets physically AND digitally but made through sites that record those sales in the larger market (eg titles published by local publishers or foreign publishers available on Kindle store)
  3. And of course, if a small market publisher sells global digital rights to a book they publish, then the digital editions of locally published books will sell through the larger market
  4. The quietest form is of course digital sales to residents who have retailer accounts in other territories, ie English Address for Kindle sales (small I’d wager but without the stats who knows)

These sales are starting, slowly but surely, to leak sales from small markets to large markets. The levels are unquantifiable right now in anything but the most sketchy way, but they are surely growing with each Kindle,  Kobo reader, iPad, iPod Touch, iPhone and Android device sold into a small market. The proliferation of devices offering ebooks sold through large market retailers  MUST be driving sales from those markets. When those retailers start sharing their data (and how likely is that) we will know for sure.

Over time the sales impact will become pronounced, especially if the small markets don’t develop a local infrastructure for selling ebooks. Imagine for instance if all digital sales in Ireland were made through Amazon, Apple, Google and Kobo with maybe a small share for the rest? If the system remains as now, no digital sales will ever be recorded and the market for books will shrink dramatically OR at least  it will seem to.

Actual Vs Observable Data
This is a bigger issue than it sounds like and is deeply relevant. As digital change moves on, small markets get a false idea of how rapidly their market is shifting, or at least publishers native to that small market do. If sales are happening in the estores I’ve already highlighted then the local market doesn’t see them. If 20% of the market shifts to digital, but buys its books from foreign retailers, then the market will fall by 20% and it would still look like digital has no presence.

Clearly there are offsets here. For instance, if a local publisher starts putting their titles on those outlets they will start selling books and will realize that the digital shift is ALREADY happening, or perhaps they will realize that even if it isn’t happening, they can sell some of their books to a global customer base.

What’s more, local offices of large publishers (quite a few of which exist in Ireland) will be able to see their rising ebook sales through their corporate parents and will know well enough how quickly digital sales are growing.

But even so, the data for the smaller market as a whole will be fractured and patchy, controlled by outside forces whose good will cannot be relied on and all the time digital will seem, because there is little reliable evidence to the contrary, to be a marginal market.

In this strange  scenario, local publishers remain unwilling to invest in digital because they feel the market is small but equally the market to them remains small because they have not even invested to get a few titles digitized and for sale on these foreign platforms. The only way to see beyond the apparently tiny size of the market is to take the leap and invest a small amount, but companies, in the absence of data, are rightly reluctant to do so.

So there it is, the Differential Rates Of Digital Change Problem. It’s not a problem for larger publishing markets of course and I don’t see any real way of addressing it until figures for digital sales begin to be shared more freely by the large companies like Apple, Amazon and Google who are not really minded to share it.

The only way beyond it is to accept on faith that digital is growing in smaller markets but in hidden ways, then to step beyond that and start offering your products digitally. This doesn’t have to be a huge investment (and if you doubt that, spend some time online reading about ebook creation from text files) but it does need to happen and it needs to happen soon.

5 thoughts on “The Differential Rates Of Digital Change Problem

  1. Eoin, while your industry knowledge is clearly deep and clear, it seems to me that much of your assessments here and in your blogs reflect a level of analysis which is excessively detailed and not enough big picture. Wood for the Trees comes to mind.

    Your ” Differential Rates Of Digital Change” for me adds up to two things:
    a) Rights: Small market publishers who think they can continue the way they are doing are looking into an abyss. There is no place for local digital rights. Small market publishers who do not intend to market eBooks internationally must stay out of the way. On the other hand what you don’t address is that small market publishers are totally free to market internationally if they chose.

    b) Transparency of small market sales: The actual size of the market in small markets will become more difficult to ascertain if international digital sellers do not supply the information. You do not really explain why that is likely to happen. It is in the interest of international digital sellers to release this information for clear and obvious market reasons.

    What I believe is missing in your blogs is:
    a) A vision for Ireland and digital publishing. What is stopping us developing our own indie publishing businesses online ? Ireland has a reputation for good writers that is there to be exploited.
    b) How publishers and Agents in a small market such as Ireland need to change their roles and move with the market to blend the roles of agent and editor and change ‘publisher’ toward ‘producer’.

    • Hello Howard,

      Thanks for the comment and the criticism, it’s welcome even if it smarts!

      You are spot on that this post is detailed and specific, though I’d argue that’s a strength. It is designed to bring home to small publishers in smaller markets the real problems they face, that impact their bottom line in a serious way and which they need to think about. I’ve talked to enough of them to realise that very often the big picture (of which I talk perhaps a little too much in other places, like ) just passes them by.

      In terms of your points:
      A) Rights ARE going global I agree, but the point of this post was to suggest a temporary strategy for the era if crossover, while ebook rights are far less valuable then print rights. While that persists, a company would be mad not to take a print deal if it were offered, even if it mean ceding ebook rights. I do address selling ebooks themselves though perhaps not as heavily as I might have. You seem to suggest that small publishers should just accept the overpowering by larger markets in your post and yet later on that they should build a vibrant market themselves, my suggestion would enable them to do that while still benefiting from print sales and then reverting the digital rights.

      B) There is no data supplied about ebook sales to Irish customers by Apple, Amazon, Google or anyone else. Believe me, I’ve asked everyone for it. That’s the issue. I get a bestseller list from Eason (a local seller) but no numbers attached making analysis difficult at best! Amazon won’t even admit how many Kindles they have sold, what makes you think they’ll release the data on small markets?

      Ai) Here we are in total agreement and while I’ve not written about it here, I’ve spoken and written about this prospect in many places. It is also something I have started to do myself through

      Bi) You are correct, I’ve not talked about that here though I do hope to over the next few weeks, and I have talked about it elsewhere and written about it in my own blog ( and elsewhere.

      All the best,

  2. Points well taken Eoin. I apologise if I come across in any kind of negative way. Blog commenting is not conducive to communicating gentle manners :-) especially without smilies.
    And I do realise that your target readers are probably industry insiders in a small market. My criticism may therefore be a little harsh on the wood/trees point.
    On the subject of “very often the big picture just passes them by” I think someone needs to give them a bit of a verbal slapping because time is passing FAST. Also although people are saying eBook sales are tiny here I am not so convinced for the reasons you set out above, and once economic recovery starts to take hold later in 2011/2012 this market is going in one direction only.

    To your specific points
    – I was trying to say that small market publishers should chose either to tackle the international eBook sales or stay out of the way.
    – I am aware of Amazon’s stupid secrecy policy. I do however wonder if geographical sales data would in time be made available if it was tackled through an entity such as the Irish Book Publishers Association.

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