February 21, 2008
Electronic readers will not cook book's goose
It has been a long day at work, but never mind - back at home in the evening, faced with the sight of a full pantry, obviously the first thought is to cook something new. For the weary, what could be better than mastering a roux, or gutting a fish - and there is no better place for a few minutes of self-education than the cookery book. Well, maybe, perhaps not: for most of us, week-night cooking amounts to demanding dishes such as pasta with pesto sauce, while the surprisingly large supply of cookery books remain on the shelf, looking regal in hardback, gathering dust. Yet enormous numbers of cookery books continue to be sold.
Delia Smith's freshly published How to Cheat at Cooking sold just short of 49,000 copies in its first few days, topping the charts, and generating an estimated £500,000 at the tills. It is not even brand new, rather a new version of her 1972 debut. But never mind, it outsold Jordan's latest memoir and doubtless will continue to be one of the year's bestsellers. There is no obvious sign that the free availability of online recipes is diminishing sales, or even Delia's attempt to charge for her own via her Delia online website - a tribute to the strength of the printed medium which means that the Delia brand can resist the commercial impact of digitisation in a way that no rock star, including Amy Winehouse, can.
Then there is the question of how many people want a electronic book reader. The Amazon Kindle costs $399, which probably will translate to a more expensive £299 whenever it launches in Britain. Sony's digital book reader is less expensive at $299, or £199. Yet that isn't cheap when you consider how much most people spend on books per head. On average people buy, or are given (and it's worth including children, because they get so many books) four books each year - 237.8 million were sold in Britain alone - and a heavy book buyer, in the view of HMV Group, the company behind Waterstone's, takes home about 12 anually.
More numbers: that heavy book buyer will spend about £90 a year (the average book sells for £7.57, according to Nielsen, which compiles these statistics), which puts the price of any electronic books reader into context. Nor is it possible to digitise the home book collection easily. The iPod is expensive too but the difference is that it is easy to digitise the home CD collection.
That means a consumer really has to want to buy a digital book reader. It might cost twice the annual book bill. So the only way that electronic readers will take hold among consumers is if they become a good way of reading other printed products, such as newspapers or magazines. Finally, going back to cookery books: this particular journey started out with the observation that many people own a cookery book or six but barely use them. They flourish despite the availability of all those recipes being online and even though those books are, by and large, unused.