Mike Shatzkin said in an article recently that "We know that rate of growth is mathematically prevented from continuing for even three more years (because it would put ebooks at 160% of publishers’ revenues if it did!)" I looked at that and nodded. Bet most other folks who know the industry did too.
Then last night Kris Rusch pointed out the problem with that line of thinking, in her blog. An excellent read: http://kriswrites.com/2011/10/05/the-business-rusch-the-way-we-were/
Shatzkin's line of thinking assumes that the industry will continue the plodding 4% annual growth it's averaged over the last 50 years.
Which isn't necessarily the case. ;)
The last time publishing grew exponentially, Rusch writes, it was back during the 40s and 50s - immediately after WW2, when tens of thousands of soldiers recently returned from the war used the GI Bill, went to college, learned to love reading for pleasure, and then passed that love on to their children. She comments that books got easier to access, because more people had more education and learned to love reading, which resulted in enormous growth of the publishing industry. And she postulates that ebooks could represent a similar disruption. Because most people don't go to bookstores to get books - they snag them at Costco, Walmart, Target, or supermarkets and pharmacies. But ereaders - which are now starting to show up in "everyman" type stores - bring the bookstore to the reader. And even if they don't have time to go to a bookstore, they might well have a smartphone - each of which is an ereader.
That changes access. And we're already seeing evidence that people tend to buy and read more books once they start reading ebooks. It's possible - not definite, but worth considering - that the ease of access will increase the pool of readers in a similar manner to how the GI Bill did, by placing the ability to buy books into the readers' hands at any time, day or night, with the press of a few buttons.
Which means the growth curve folks like Shatzkin are looking at might not be the real curve. It might be a small part of a much bigger curve. And the phenomenon Kris writes about, IF it is happening at all (which I am seeing strong signs of, but of course nobody can confirm), is going to be next to impossible to predict.
Not only don't we know where the curve will flatten - we might not even know where the ceiling is.