The Pitfalls of Publishing's E-Reader Guessing Game

A parlor game is working its way through the publishing industry: “Guess E-Reader Sales.”

Neither Amazon nor Sony will reveal sales figures for Kindles or Readers, so publishing professionals and prognosticators are relying on ambiguous data — e.g. financial line items, or the amount and tone of user comments on the Kindle’s Amazon listing — to squeak out guesstimates.

Parlor games are generally innocuous, but two short paragraphs in the New York Times’ BEA roundup touch on the competitive disadvantages stemming from e-reader ambiguity:

But neither Amazon nor Sony will say how many of their products they have sold, making it impossible for publishers to assess the size of the market or for bookstore owners to evaluate the threat.

One publisher estimated that Amazon had sold roughly 10,000 Kindles, while another estimated that as many as 50,000 electronic-book readers of all types are in general circulation. But both publishers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that those figures were little more than educated guesses. [Emphasis added.]

Again, this guessing game may seem harmless on first blush, but closer inspection reveals three business pitfalls bubbling beneath the surface:

1. False response through vapor messages: Amazon’s two recent Kindle “announcements” (here and here) are intricately developed statements, each of which requires second and third looks to realize there’s no “there,” there. Combine these official announcements with customer comments and sales guesses already in circulation, and soon we’re all amplifying messages that don’t actually exist. Meanwhile, Amazon receives attention without ever showing its hand.

2. As the Times notes, ambiguous threats are impossible to evaluate: The default response to closely guarded sales figures is to assume those figures are low. But the longer the e-reader guessing game goes on, the easier it becomes for imagination and fear to creep into the equation. These emotional responses, if taken to an extreme, may actually hinder publishers from developing their own digital gameplans.

But there’s a flip side to extended ambiguity: If/when Amazon and Sony ever reveal reliable information, publishers might breath a sign of relief because they finally know what they’re dealing with. The anxious shuffling we’re currently witnessing could finally turn into definitive business strategies — and this is a prime reason why we may never see hard data from either of these companies.

3. The distraction component: All this talk about Kindles and Readers and the impending doom heralded by electronic formats distracts everyone from the larger digital issue: It’s not the device that matters, it’s the platform.

Making books available in digital formats (“the platform”) is vital to sustained and future growth because digital is both a way to take advantage of current devices like the Kindle and the Reader, and it’s a way around hardware lock-in. Popularity defines the power of a content device (this is why the iPod is infinitely more powerful than the Zune), but if a content provider cannot accurately gauge popularity, then the focus needs to elevate to a broader level of analysis: How can my company take advantage of digital as a whole? How can we best position ourselves to adapt if/when the electronic book tipping point emerges? How do we make the platform work for us?

Distraction from these core questions makes it easier for a third party to swoop in and grab the platform itself, which, as we’ve seen on the music side, is where the real power lies.

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