Several times here in the past, I’ve expressed skepticism about the future of e-books. Not that they won’t be around: of course they will. But the wild-eyed suggestions that they would dominate the publishing industry and soon lead to the demise of printed books were premature. When claims like those are made, it’s important to note the source. Often it was the manufacturers of e-readers and sellers of e-books, hoping to garner a chunk of both markets. Their claims were echoed by consumers, salivating at the prospect of toting hundreds of books around on a small digital device.
E-books got off to a tremendous start and made huge inroads, now comprising about 22 percent of the overall book market. In such a short time, that alone is amazing, but it’s important to step back and assess the overlooked truths related to e-books. Some of those issues are important to authors whose work focuses on a specific region.
Within a limited sales market like the Adirondacks, the e-book loses its luster, promising very little financial return. The sales percentage going to the author is much higher, yes, but it’s a higher percentage of a much lower price, so the yield is usually quite small. Only very high-volume sales can overcome that problem, and high volume is not part of regional-sales algorithms.
Bowker, the Pew Research Center, and other companies compile wide-ranging statistics on book publishing, and the results are sometimes surprising. They’re also very useful in planning a sales strategy for specific genres.
With so much media hype surrounding digital, it seems everyone must be immersed in e-books, but a Pew survey found that only 21 percent of adults have read an e-book in the past year. Narrow the question to adults who are self-described book readers and the percentage rises to 29.
If you’re writing and selling, it’s important to know those trends, but it’s just as important to recognize what it also means: 79 percent of adults did not read an e-book in the past year. If your publisher produced your e-book but didn’t tell you that number, you perhaps unknowingly entered a market where more than 70 percent of the potential customers (readers) cannot be reached.
Pew noted that 88 percent of those who read an e-book also read a printed book in the past year. That contradicts the theory that e-books are the impending future of reading. Instead, they will likely be an important part of a diverse market, which includes printed and audio books.
I’ve mentioned in the past that e-books (so far, at least) seem best suited to fiction—romance novels, mysteries, and the like. That category now constitutes almost two-thirds of all e-book sales.
Poetry, on the other hand, has largely proven a bust, in part because it requires a certain type of formatting (stanzas, unusual text breaks and line breaks, etc.) not supported by e-readers.
For authors who self-publish, it’s important to know that online sales are nearly 50 percent of the market. Depending on the type of book, brick-and-mortar sales might not be enough. To ignore that online figure could limit your chances of success, no matter if the goal is financial gain or a wide readership.
Among the statistics it accumulated, Bowker revealed that the number of published e-books has increased dramatically (partly because they are much cheaper to produce), but that in 2012, print books also rose by 3 percent. That was a surprise to just about everyone.
A negative issue with digital is that the industry never settled on a single e-reader format or method of file protection, so some books can’t be viewed on certain readers. It’s not good for business to place so much responsibility on the customer. The lack of a single system has likely helped stymie e-book sales.
As an author and bookseller, I’ve often joked that people shouldn’t share books with friends and relatives because it might limit my sales. If you’re selling a product, you wouldn’t encourage customers to pass it on to someone else, would you?
Well, the surprising truth is … “loanability” is actually perceived by the customer as part of a book’s value. One reason many consumers choose to buy a printed version over an e-version of the same book is that most e-books can only be shared on a very limited basis.
A printed book, on the other hand, can be purchased, read, and passed on to several other folks. And they don’t need a special reader: the only requirement is suitable lighting and a pair of working eyes.
So if you’re thinking of publishing, look at all the options. E-books are great (I use them every day), but beware of proclamations that the printed book is dead. Heck, even the world’s e-book guru, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, recently declared that paper books would be around for a long time to come.
Of course, he benefits immensely from both formats, so he’s the lucky guy with two dogs in the same fight. As he sees it, both are winners. Who could disagree?
Photo by John Warren.