The most recent news on e-book sales might be startling to some, particularly those who have commented or sent emails regarding pieces I’ve previously written on the subject. The gist of many of those missives: like it or not, print is dead, and within a few years (2015 was a popular choice), digital books will rule. For my taste, it was far too simplistic a view, based solely on one mathematical bit of information: since e-books had suddenly risen to comprise about 20% of all book sales, the pace of growth would continue, and even accelerate.
That viewpoint ignored the most important requirement for just about any ongoing, successful endeavor in this country: a sustainable economic engine must be in place. That hasn’t happened yet.
Yes, money is being made, but it’s important to know how it’s being made and who is making it. Dozens of companies have been trying to solve the future of e-books and harness them economically. That future is still bright with promise, but some unforeseen realities are now coming into play.
In 2013, e-book sales didn’t just plateau—they actually declined, according to statistics compiled by the Association of American Publishers. Those who jumped on the e-book bandwagon early, pronouncing printed books well on their way to obsolescence, may be surprised. They also might see it as simply a glitch along the way to eventual consumption of the entire market. I still disagree. While e-books are an important part of the market and of the digital world, they are just that: a part of it.
One of the factors driving e-book sales is the sale of e-readers. Tens of millions have been sold since they first appeared, and as noted in the past, the push of e-reader sales during the Christmas season each year is a main driver of subsequent e-book sales. The recent leveling off of e-reader sales doesn’t necessarily mean the market is saturated, but it seems to indicate that most people who want to read books digitally already own some type of e-reader. They may purchase updated readers in the future, but that doesn’t translate into new e-book sales.
It has also been discovered that the wide-ranging capabilities of tablets can be a drawback. While you can read a book on a tablet, you can also do a lot more, like play the hottest game or communicate with friends. In that scenario, reading books will often take a back seat to more glamorous options.
Amazon’s publishing services are, at least on some level, familiar to most of us, but even for those who know the company as the world’s largest publisher of e-books, here’s something you probably didn’t know: last year they produced a new, self-published PRINTED book every four minutes. So when you think of Amazon and publishing, it’s wrong to just think digital. They are huge in the world of print as well.
Unfortunately (in my view), though they sell many services to the author who self-publishes, it’s with a let-the-buyer-beware attitude. They tell you why you need their help, which you can obtain by paying for certain services. They don’t tell you that the vast majority of authors will be unsuccessful in promoting and selling their own work. That’s not my prediction: it’s a fact of the business. In most of those cases, the bulk of income related to the book is money paid for Amazon’s services, while the income from actual book sales for those titles is negligible, rendering their claims of high royalty payments irrelevant for most authors.
It also may be factor in the reduction of e-book sales. Urged by online publishing companies, hundreds of thousands of hopeful authors took the plunge during the past decade, only to see their books go largely unnoticed. Authors may now be taking a step back to learn more before committing funds to produce their work.
Another e-book issue yet to be addressed: the format is not suitable for many types of books. That problem may be solved in the future, but at present, the focus is on the easiest and quickest way to sell the genres that do well in digital format.
Despite the do-it-yourself movement in the world of books, it’s becoming evident why traditional publishing ruled for so long. Without a solid program of advertising, marketing, and distribution, success is elusive. Most books simply do not sell themselves.
Another interesting development in the world of books: where self-publishing, including e-books, was once an end in itself, it is now becoming more of a stepping-stone. There’s no little irony in the result: e-book authors who catch on and sell well are being grabbed up by major publishers to develop and sell their work where the real money is: in printed books.
Personally, I love the digital age, I love printed books, and I love the do-it-yourself possibilities. It’s a difficult, yet exciting, time in the world of books. Regionally, new titles about the Adirondacks and North Country have proliferated. The literary scene is thriving, boosted by writers’ groups, book events, and the work of folks like Nathalie Thill at the Adirondack Center for Writing.
Depending on the endeavor, success can be measured in many ways. From my perspective, an important factor in writing books is finances. Strong monetary returns indicate a book is reaching a wide audience, and having people read their work is, after all, a primary goal of most authors.
With printed books, it is estimated that for every copy sold, three or four people will read it. Even by that measure, most e-books are financial and literary failures, the equivalent of perhaps a dozen sales. Locally, however, an author has accomplished something by selling 1,000 copies, meaning 3,000–4,000 people have read their work.
That has been achieved many times with printed books, but I’m anxiously looking forward to the first regional e-book to attain success. Because of the tendency towards low prices for e-books, the financial returns may not be large, but reaching a great number of readers is every writer’s goal. If you know of anyone who has done it via regional e-books (books about the region), I’d love to hear about it.
Photo by John Warren.