- Ebook sales plateaued in 2015 and even dropped in some places
- Print book sales are increasing as ebook sales drop
- Library patrons aren’t fond of ebook borrowing
- Why you MUST offer both ebook and print editions to readers!
Way back in 1998, we predicted ebooks would become a successful revenue model for authors after I wrote and self-published one of the very first ebooks, before “ebook” was even a known term, and before Stephen King made the term famous.
But, even while we promoted and sold ebooks for authors, we also said that print books would never become obsolete.
At BookLocker.com, we teach authors that offering print and ebook editions of their books increases their market reach, and their books sales overall. More on that later.
Revenues for all book sales have increased at BookLocker.com. But, over a 3-year period, from 2012 through 2014, we saw a steady but small decrease in the percentage of those book sales attributed to print books and a steady but small increase in the percentage attributed to ebook sales.
As you can see from the chart below, in 2015, things turned around for the first time in four years. This year, the percentage of print books sales has increased while the percentage of ebook sales has decreased.
Of course, we’re just one small company (with only a few thousand books on the market) but we are hearing similar rumblings across the industry. In September, The Wall Street Journal weighed in on the decline of ebook sales.
In a WSJ op-ed this week, Hachette Book Group CEO Michael Pietsch confirms ebook sales have plateaued, only bringing in about a quarter of book sale revenues for traditional publishers. Those numbers are similar to ours, as well as others.
Back in July of 2014, TechRadar surprised some (not us!) by predicting that e-readers might have a limited lifespan. They were right.
Why have ebook sales plateaued, and even declined in some places? Here are my thoughts on this not-so-surprising development:
TRENDS AND GADGETS COME AND GO
Ebooks were (and are) very trendy…but trends tend to die down after awhile. Ebook reading devices were a cool new gadget. For several years, we nerds couldn’t resist trying the latest and greatest hand-held gizmo.
While firms are still trying to improve on ebook reading devices, there seems to be a been there/done that attitude among consumers with regards to dedicated those gadgets. I used to read ebooks daily on my Nook but it lost its luster after awhile and I switched back to primarily print books. (I’m not the only person I know who has more than one ebook reading device gathering dust in a desk drawer!) And, to be completely honest, I missed the sights, sounds and smells of the local bookstore, and their awesome coffee! I do occasionally still buy ebooks when I want a title immediately but I read them on my iPhone now, which is far lighter and easier to manage than a Nook or a Kindle.
2. Print books will never die. Some people pooh-pooh’d my prediction several years ago that print books weren’t going anywhere. The first book printed on a moveable type printing press was created in the 1400’s. Print books have been around for hundreds of years, and are still selling strong. They’re not going anywhere anytime soon. It’s going to take a lot more than a series of too-similar, trendy electronic reading devices to kill the print book.
On the flip-side, ebooks have a firm footing in the reading community and they will also never die…as long as we all still have electricity, of course. The publishing industry has simply found another way to reach readers. And, they’re doing a great job of it!
3. Giving readers a choice increases book sales for all book types. Authors offering ebooks are reaching a market (often younger folks, but tech-savvy older ones as well) who might not otherwise want to wait for a box to arrive in the mail. Authors offering print books are reaching traditional readers who appreciate the feel, smell, and, admittedly, emotional comforts provided by a printed tome. And, of course, there are the hard-core bibliophiles who wouldn’t read an ebook if their life depended on it. Then there are the folks of all ages who are happy to read an ebook or a print book, as long as they can get what they want as quickly as possible to continually feed their beautiful book addiction. (I, myself, am a sufferer so it’s politically correct for me to joke about it!)
An ebook with no print counter-part may lead readers to assume it’s a low-quality book, or not a “real” book. Even those who are perfectly happy reading an ebook may balk if it’s obvious that neither the author, nor the publisher, invested any “real money” in creating a “real book.” If the book isn’t worth the expense of professional print formatting and a great full-cover design, as well as print distribution, is it really a good book?
A print book with no ebook counterpart can lose out on sales to the paperless generation that wants everything delivered instantly to an electronic screen. And, folks who favor ebooks tend to read a LOT of books, especially since they are so inexpensive.
For all of these reasons and more, authors should offer both options to attract the most readers, and to sell the most books. Just don’t count on ebooks alone to put enough food on your table!
EBOOKS NOT POPULAR AT LIBRARIES
According to Publisher’s Weekly, most library patrons are unlikely to “borrow” ebooks. I didn’t find this surprising at all.
Why would they borrow an ebook when they can simply borrow the real thing? If you really want the ebook, it’s likely priced so low that it’s easier to simply buy it, and download it instantly, than to drive to the library. And, libraries are more likely to have the print edition of many popular titles anyway.
In the past, libraries were used as a way to borrow a print book for free. With ebooks, you have the convenience of not needing to travel anywhere to get what you want. And, in our ever-more-slothful society, why drive to the library to borrow an ebook that you can buy and download it instantly for just a few bucks or, in some cases, even less? Why borrow something that might expire before you have finished it? Why not just buy a copy of your own, and keep it on your device indefinitely?
And, then there’s the techno-confusion factor. If you’re already in the library, why go to the librarian for training in how to login and download an ebook when you can just grab the printed edition off the shelf? For folks who abhor learning new technology, ebook library lending can be a pain.
According to those surveyed, librarian patrons aren’t borrowing ebooks for two reasons: 1. the ebook they want isn’t yet available at the library and 2. they prefer the print book.
EBOOKS VS. PRINT BOOKS – CAN’T WE ALL JUST GET ALONG?
In the beginning, there were staunch advocates (and critics) of ebooks. And, there were staunch advocates (and critics) or print books. Now that things have calmed down, there is far less judgmental rhetoric. Some ebook-only folks still read print books (usually because it’s a title they can’t get electronically) and some hard-core bibliophiles have checked out some ebooks, and liked what they saw.
The fact is print books and ebooks are here to stay and authors who embrace both formats are, quite simply, going to attract more readers and, of course, sell more books.
Print Books Are Not Dying. In Fact, They Seems To Be Making A Comeback!
BookLocker’s Extremely Affordable Print and Ebook Publishing Packages
Why You Should Publish Your Print and Ebook Editions AT THE SAME TIME!
Should Authors Abandon Print Books For Ebooks Only? HECK NO!
75% of Americans DON’T Own Ebook Readers – Are you ignoring 75% of the book buying market?!
Three Times More People Prefer Print Books to Ebooks
Got questions about Print On Demand and Self-publishing? Ask Angela Hoy.
About The Author
Angela Hoy is the publisher of WritersWeekly.com, the author of 19 books, and the co-owner of BookLocker.com (one of the original POD publishers that still gets books to market in less than a month), PubPreppers.com (print and ebook design for authors who truly want to self-publish), and Abuzz Press (the publishing co-op that charges no setup fees).
Angela has lived and traveled across the U.S. with her kids in an RV, settled in a river-side home in Bradenton, FL, and lived on a 52 ft Irwin sailboat. Angela now resides on a mountaintop in Northwest Georgia, where she plans to spend the rest of her days bird watching, gardening, hiking, and taking in all of the amazing sunrises.
WritersWeekly.com - the free marketing ezine for writers, which features new paying markets and freelance job listings every Wednesday.
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Abuzz Press offers FAST and FREE book publication, but only accepts a small percentage of submissions, and only works with U.S. authors.
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I read books on my Kindle all the time, but I do get library books of favorite authors with a higher price tag on their Kindle editions. I won’t pay more than $5 or $6 for an ebook. I am grateful for ebooks because probably 98% of my royalties come from my ebook sales. I would make practically nothing as an author if I only published in print. It could be the pricing for me because once I decided to self-publish and get my book rights back from traditional publishers, I could control the pricing of my ebooks. I will continue to put my Amish books in print, but I might not the other genres. Only my Amish print books sell several copies. My author friends sell the most in ebook formats too.
The big factor in the decline of e-book sales is the move from traditional publishers to raise e-book prices in an attempt to protect paper book sales. If you look at small and self-published books that are still priced competitively, there is no decline.
That having been said, I do agree that authors should offer their works in three formats–e-book, paper book, and audiobook. I prefer audiobboks for my pleasure reading, because I am prone to migraines that make it difficult to read text. When I am reading text, I prefer the convenience of e-books.
However, other people have different preferences. Honestly, once you have a completed book, formatting for both e-book and POD trade paperback is relatively painless. I can do both in an hour or so. On Amazon the book will show up in all available formats when you search for it, I assume other retailers do the same.
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Also in the books-only category: flip to a random page and start reading. You can do this with a favorite old book and get that “yes! I remember this part!” feeling and go from there for a while. I guess you could do that with an ereader, but it’s not the same feel as the pages ebbing from right to left under your thumb and fanning you with a hint of anticipation while you wonder where you’ll land.
I am a writer, and I must hold a real book. I tend to earmark, underline, and use bookmarks. Also, I often remember where something is on the page, which I love (since I often re-read favorites. My novel, Shanghai Legacy, was published in paperback. These days it’s available as e-book, on kindle, I-pad, etc. It’s true most of my classmates from college order it in digital form. But for me that just devalues the book. Sometimes if I’ve borrowed a book from the library that I like, I buy a copy to keep and write comments. There’s just nothing like it.
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I don’t know that “trend is definitely waning” is quite the right phrasing for the stats you show. Growth of two percent, then four percent, then decline by two percent seems to indicate an average of two percent growth per year. I’d be more inclined to wonder what happened in 2014 to spike it over its general trend. It will never completely replace print, but it’s not going away, either. Of course, these figures are a percentage of book sales only – it doesn’t reflect the discouraging trend of people who only read when school forces them to read something, and otherwise get all of their news and entertainment from movies and videos.
My library allows me to download from home, but the DRM won’t work with Calibre, so it’s no good to me. I don’t have a dedicated “reader” device, and I don’t feel like messing with a half dozen different programs (or dropping all my browser-safety plugins, as I had to do here to post a comment) to read ebooks. I just want to use one, and Calibre has a lot of things going for it. The fact that I prefer to keep books I like so I can re-read them is just another reason I don’t mess with the complication. I pretty much only go to the library if a book I’ve been long awaiting is only available in hardcover and I can’t stand waiting any longer.
Price is a factor. When I first looked at ebooks, mass market paperbacks averaged six dollars. I thought if the ebooks were lower, I might try those, but when I looked up the titles that interested me, they were double that price. I don’t have much in the way of money – been scraping by only with family help for years – so I usually buy mass market paperbacks, and used copies whenever possible. You can’t do that with ebooks. I do tend to prefer new with manga/graphic novels, if only because the used copies so often had their first sale at a bricks-and-mortar bookstore that tried to combat theft by plastering it with magnetic tags that cover some of the art on or inside the back cover, though it means waiting longer and saving up to be able to get the next volumes, and I’m less likely to try a new series. A twenty-five cent used mass market paperback is easier to try than a ten dollar ebook that you can’t even resell. CJ Cherryh’s Chanur series was a pleasant surprise that led me to buy more of her books in new mass market. Other books went directly to the “resell it somewhere if you can find someone dumb enough to pay for this crap” pile in the corner.
Permanence is a factor. DRM books do not belong to you when you buy them – the DRM controller can decide to pull the title and POOF! Amazon did it with Animal Farm and 1984, and while the resulting outcry prompted them to declare they’d never do that again, we have only their word on that. Then there’s the problem of what happens when the seller goes out of business, as in the cases of Diesel eBooks and Sony Reader Store – downloads are no longer available, and at least with Diesel, DRM downloads were blocked before the closure was even final. A print copy is yours to keep, to give away, to sell, to burn, to carve into fantastic art, or to do whatever you want with it. Digital purchases can evaporate as if they never existed.
Space is a factor. I prefer mass market paperbacks for my print books, not just because they cost less than hardcovers and trade paperbacks, but also because they take up less space. I can fit significantly more books per square foot when they’re mass market paperbacks than when they’re trades and hardcovers. Ebooks do have an advantage in this regard, since data on a computer takes up no more physical space than the computer itself. If it weren’t so prohibitively time-intensive or monetarily expensive, I’d like to scan my physical library into my computer library so I could pick up and go anywhere with all of my books.
Content format is a factor. As Wendy Lou Jones pointed out, having text and pictures that have to stay together makes the ebook more complicated if you’re using page-specific formats like mobi or epub. My preferred format is HTML because it scrolls beautifully in Firefox, it’s easy to search, the text size is easily managed at will, and embedding pictures is easy, if there is actually need for it. The epubs scroll decently in Calibre, until they get to the end of the specified “page” and then they jump to the next page. Drives me nuts. Of course, nobody sells books in HTML because they’re not DRM-locked and they’re not considered “books” that way. Reader-devices are set on the idea of pages, so everything has to be formatted that way.
Look and feel are nice. I’m rather OCD on the matter, and it aggravates me when my books aren’t all the same height, though I do enjoy browsing my bookshelves and admiring the rows upon rows of book spines. (I made a point of finishing my Nancy Drew collection in a hurry when I realized they were getting rid of the old yellow covers and publishing in new multicolor covers – I wanted it all to match.) Sometimes a title catches my eye and cries “read me again!” and I take a nice break getting reacquainted with an old friend. I like to re-read. Reading once and getting rid of it – that’s reserved for books I really disliked and wish I’d never touched. (I don’t really get the issue with trees – lumber harvesters plant more than replacement trees, not only because it’s a good thing to do, but also because they want to have more trees to use later. Recycling paper is actually more expensive and uses more chemicals than simply planting more trees. Cloning would be even worse.) Calibre has a book cover feature, but I find I prefer the rows of text in the spreadsheet-style listing, now that I figured out how to reduce the size of the rows to fit them closer together. It has a lovely uniformity that the print books – especially the ones that are never available in mass market – do not have.
Of course, the ease of access is part of the reason I don’t do a lot with the library anymore. As a child, I went to the library with my family every Saturday during the summer. My brother and I were restricted to ten books each (library checkout rule, because we were still kids) and so we’d read those books (sometimes getting into each other’s set when we finished our own, because a week is a long time to fill with only ten books when you’re a child on summer vacation) and swap them out for more the very next Saturday. Now, I spend six days a week working to pay the bills and reading in the tiny moments between, so driving across town to the library during the small window of time that they’re open and I’m not at work is a chore (and marginally dangerous, given that I have to cross the bad parts of town to get there). I stick to the physical books I own and the ebooks I can download for free (and keep).
As I said before, I won’t pay for something that will go away when someone else says it’s time. I won’t buy music downloads, either, for the same reasons (Pandora free streaming has turned out to work for me, now that YouTube has blocked my player for being too old and the CD racks have become a skeleton at the retailers). Most of my favorite print authors are not available as free ebooks (though I’ve gotten some nice free ebooks from Baen, which doesn’t use DRM, and the good will they’ve engendered by giving me stuff makes them top of my list if I should decide to buy ebooks) and most of the unknowns I’ve tried weren’t really very good. The perception of ebook-only as a mark of low quality has its roots in reality – there are a lot of terrible ebooks out there, because anyone with access to a computer and internet can put one out there. The key is to differentiate from them and make sure people know it.
Fanfiction may be mostly terrible (just like ebooks in general, the barrier to entry is low: anyone with a computer and internet access can put one up), but once you learn the trick of checking your favorite authors’ lists of favorites, it’s easier to find decent stories (and Calibre has some helpful plugins that make downloading complete stories easy). Some fanfiction writers go on to sell. Cassandra Clare/Claire was a big-name fanfic author before she went into print. There was a bit of a to-do when it came out that her major fanfic was largely/partially plagiarized from a little-known print series by Pamela Dean, but it doesn’t seem to have had any effect on her sales. Fifty Shades of Grey was a Twilight fanfic before EL James changed the names and hair/eye colors. (A co-worker kept pestering me to read it, so I looked up the original fanfic version “Master of the Universe” and couldn’t get two chapters in without falling over laughing.) It’s about getting noticed.
With fanfiction, Project Gutenberg, Archive.org, Baen, and assorted web pages I’ve downloaded, my Calibre library has over NINETEEN THOUSAND files, all of them free. Most of them are marked ToSort, because I downloaded the favorites of all my favorites and haven’t had time to read them all yet, but I can and do re-read my favorites when I have time. My print library numbers in hundreds (I think – I’ve actually lost count, so it could be up to a thousand?). The important point remains: good ones are good, whether they’re print or digital, and whether they’re free or paid, but people have to know about them in order to read them. Make it good and make it known.
I wonder if the rising cost of eBooks doesn’t skew this a bit. I recall when they came out E-books were about 10-15% of the cost of a print book. now I see eBooks just a couple of bucks cheaper. Sorry for two bucks I am getting a print copy. Just a thought.
I love both. My kindle wins right now, because it makes it easier to travel light. I work from wherever I am and carry quite a bit of reference material on the kindle, as well as books for enjoyment. About 200 books altogether. That’s a lot to tote. I can also use the kindle to jot down notes and store pictures. And watch movies. My phone does not have enough storage for all this, nor enough battery capacity, despite being a newer model. The screen is also too small, even at 5″, to read comfortably. But it is great for taking pictures and social media. Oh, and phone calls.
When I go into a library or bookstore, I can never resist the urge to walk out with at least a half dozen books. What can I say? Must have reading material.
I love the feel of a ‘real’ book and think ebooks are great for travelling or a wet day in a tent, while camping. However, we must also consider the trees lost to create the paper. How about ‘cloned’ paper? That’s what we need. Nothing replaces the tactile experience of a printed book. The ‘new’ smell is also something for which I’m a sucker. They become like old friends you can always revisit at any time.
Judy Barnes, author of Deep Talk – Death does not exist (non-fiction)
Ebook readership really depends upon what type of books and audiences you are speaking of.
From personal experience, our special E-cookbook (food demineralization for kidney failure) which required a lot of technical man hours to set up (text–photo unmoveable connections) and cost, has few buyers and really wasn’t worth it. On the other hand, that same book has sold thousands of copies for us as a paperback, and we are now into the third edition.
It seems to me that the types of books prone to Ebook acceptance are those that can be read in two hours or less, deal with pulse pound themes (sex), or fall into other simple storyline categories (children’s themes or simple romance).
Air travelers have more E-readers nowadays than four years ago. And yes, I absolutely see this a lot on airplanes (though not exclusively) when I am traveling. However, a large book that would take hours to digest is still seen in the hands of many travelers and are not left in airport seats.
I do agree with Angela — once a technology arrives, it is NOT going away. The best thing we can all do is take a good look at the subject material we are producing then ask ourselves, is this something that you would want to, (1) read on the run, or (2) curl up with, or (3) is highly technical and lengthy — meaning thousands of pages.
If you can’t answer ‘Yes’ to any of the above, forget the Ebook.
Another thing that E-readers can not do is present a pretty cover 24/7 while sitting on a shelf in direct line of sight. Many books (especially those with theme covers) are prized for the cover art. The reader wants to see their star of the book featured on the cover. Book covers are also collector items. I personally have several copies of a book that has undergone several cover changes. There is real value in certain book covers.
Here is another thing to consider — the current E-readers are really here-today-gone-tomorrow. The next thing on the immediate horizon is the holographic book (generated from a very small device). Now your wristwatch size ‘book-band’ that you wear frees your hands from a Kindel to turn holographic pages. What this means is yet another E-book (and format), but also yet another decision for publishers.
In the final analysis, I am learning that you DON’T jump on the E-bandwagon for everything. As the costs come down to produce Ebooks they become more practical to commission out to have done. However, quality still has to be ‘job one’.
Some people may make hundreds of sales from an E-title, but that isn’t typical. If you can’t recoup your expenses to create that E-title (even at Booklocker), then it simply isn’t worth it. Cost is cost.
Again, cost in title creation Vs. cost recovery must be the deciding factor.
My library allows me to download e-books for free, which is wonderful! I never go to the library; I just select books from the convenience of my home. I can keep them for several weeks and if I’m not finished, usually I can renew it easily. I’ll take free books anytime I want in exchange for not keeping the books forever!
Great article. I’d add an analogy that helps me understand print versus digital.
* Print done right is an experience, much like dining in a fine restaurant. When people defend print books, they’re often talking about the experience as much as the actual content. It’s from people who enjoy dining.
* Digital is like fast-food. The experience matters less that the immediate results, filling the tummy. It’s for people who consume books.
You remember that evening at the fine restaurant. You don’t remember that rushed visit to MacDonalds. Fine restaurants, like some print books, pride themselves on looking both different and beautiful. The downside of digital books, for me, has always been that they’re like MacDonalds. Every one looks the same.
The sales reflect that. People who want a book to read or consult again and again, are drawn to print. Those who consume and discard books in quantity find digital is good enough for them, especially if it is cheaper.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that many print books aren’t like fast food or that digital books can’t provide a marvelous reading experience. The distinction lies in the general pattern not any individual instance.
–Michael W. Perry, co-author of Lily’s Ride (YA fiction)