Monday, June 11, 2018

Local Writers: Latest E-book and Print Trends

As an author of many books and publisher (with my partner) of many others, it behooves me to keep up on the latest trends in the world of books.

This includes the ongoing question considered by many of my Adirondack friends and acquaintances who are authors: should I sell printed copies, or is it better to go digital with e-books? Or maybe a combination of the two? It’s an issue I’ve addressed here in years past, particularly in 2013 and 2014 when the e-book explosion rocked the industry, leading many experts and non-experts alike to conclude that the end for printed books was clearly in sight.

Here’s a pertinent snippet from one of those articles (November 2013):

“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. E-books got off to a tremendous start and made huge inroads, now comprising about 22 percent of the overall book market.”

Comments and emails I received afterward mostly said the writing was on the wall: print was dead, or would soon be, and within a few years e-books would easily dominate the publishing world. I disagreed for a number of reasons, including the realization from working in publishing that not all books would lend themselves well to restrictions that come with the digital format. That has thus far proven correct.

Five years later, research on the status of digital versus print has been updated, adding important items to the toolboxes of aspiring and already published writers, especially self-published authors, of which there are many in the Adirondacks.

The market share (roughly 25 percent) attained by e-books several years ago as sales skyrocketed is remains about the same. Despite predictions that within a few years, e-books would comprise perhaps 90 percent of sales, it’s still true today that three of every four books sold are print copies.

That’s important for authors (and publishers) to know, especially in connection with the genre they choose. Fiction (including romance and science fiction), mysteries, and thrillers comprise about 48 percent of all e-book sales, so if your writing falls into one of those categories, it would be wise to look at digital publishing even if you’re a dedicated print fan.

And genre truly does matter. According to Author Earnings, 49 percent of adult fiction titles are sold in e-book or audio format, while in adult nonfiction the number drops to 24 percent. Where books are sold matters as well: about 65 percent of all adult fiction and nonfiction titles are sold online. Remember, that doesn’t mean in digital form, but rather that they were purchased from stores found on the internet as opposed to physical locations (brick and mortar).

They also found that book sales were down at Barnes & Noble, Target, Walmart, chain stores, and airport outlets, but were up by about 15 percent at Amazon, and were also up at independent bookstores, which is particularly important to authors and sellers of regional books.

The Pew Research Center looked at who was reading, and in what formats. According to their findings, “About three-quarters (74 percent) of Americans have read a book in the past 12 months in any format, a figure that has remained largely unchanged since 2012…. Overall, Americans read an average (mean) of 12 books per year, while the typical (median) American has read four books in the past 12 months. Each of these figures is largely unchanged since 2011.” The breakdown: 28 percent read an e-book during the past year, while 65 percent read a printed book.

As for buyers, SurveyMonkey found that only 3 percent of customers purchased e-books exclusively, while 37 percent did the same with print books. Perhaps a peek at the future is the 48 percent who purchased books in both formats during the past year.

It also turns out that total purchases do not reflect total books read when it comes to e-books. A relatively high percentage goes unread, presumably because many are cached with hundreds or thousands of others (usually on Kindles) and become lost in the shuffle, or at least temporarily forgotten. Further hindering the overall total of readers consuming e-books is the difficulty in sharing them with others (because of built-in software restrictions). Print books have a different outcome: most of them are not only read by the buyer, but are then passed on repeatedly to friends and acquaintances.

Library Journal noted a wide disparity among the percentages addressing which format is best suited for certain uses. “When reading for pleasure, almost three-quarters of respondents (74 percent) said they preferred print books, compared with only 12 percent who prefer e-books (14 percent expressed no format preference)…. By contrast, 45 percent of respondents prefer e-books for research, and 20 percent expressed no preference.”

Nearly all the studies concluded that, after more than five years of using both book formats, most readers expressed a strong preference for print books. Even though some of the reasons given might seem trivial, like loving the odor of books (which was mentioned frequently across the board), Bookmasters reported that the very same reasons held true in surveys conducted several years apart.

“Five years ago, we wrote a blog post titled ‘Print Book vs. eBook’ in which we explored the reasons why people prefer print books and the reasons why people prefer eBooks. We found that print books were preferred for the overall experience: going to the bookstore and browsing the selection before making a decision; picking up an old book off of the bookshelf and enjoying it again; moving the pages from the right side to the left side; and even enjoying the smell of the book. We found that eBooks were preferred mostly for accessibility reasons. eBooks are available for purchase and reading at any time and any place, usually at a lower cost than print books. Five years later, not much has changed. The reasons to prefer one over the other, or to enjoy both, still hold true today.”

One other factor playing a role in e-book sales is the price war that took place among the major publishers. The result is that many e-books cost more, which is being blamed for slower sales growth. But it had to happen. Otherwise, authors were being dis-incentivized by the devaluation of their work. Royalties on a product selling for $3 are very low per sale, and the unvarnished truth is that most authors don’t sell thousands of copies of a book (the average ranges from one to ten copies), so the time, work, and financial investment are simply not worth it if a book retails for just a few dollars.

The updated research on e-books versus print will impact my own decisions on book projects in the near future. I happen to enjoy and use both formats on a daily basis, mostly for research purposes. If you’re planning to publish, use the numbers here and dig further to determine the best path forward for your particular book’s chance at financial success.

Photo by John Warren.

Related Stories

Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 22 books and more than 200 articles on the region's past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, was a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004, which has published 83 titles to date. They also offer editing/proofreading services, web design, and a range of PowerPoint presentations based on Gooley's books.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publishers Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.


6 Responses

  1. Kim Ladd says:

    I agree that both formats have their pros and cons. I personally like the fact that I can carry a number of titles in digital format, particularly those I use for research. When it comes to pleasure reading, I read fiction. I want to keep many of those books forever and fear “losing” them when I change devices or when a seller closes down, or in the event I forget my password. I also live in a “no-mans-land” lacking both internet and cell phone access. As an author of nonfiction that utilizes color graphics and a great deal of photography, I prefer readers have the advantage of being able to access those visuals and want to encourage them to carry it around with them.

    • Lawrence Gooley says:

      All good points to consider. As for keeping your books, it’s interesting that many people consider their e-books as ephemeral … they “have” an e-book, but they “own” a print book. Something similar happens with gifts. Print books have always been very popular as gifts (they’re substantial and might cost between $20 and $40), but e-books don’t fit the bill as well because they are intangible and cheap. (And no apologies to any tightwads out there who think intangible and cheap are the perfect gift criteria!)

  2. Charlie S says:

    “should I sell printed copies, or is it better to go digital with e-books?”

    To each his own! I’m a firm believer in whatever works for whomever, and any reading is better than none, but for this here cowboy it’s printed matter all the way. I’ve got books that were published when horsies and buggies were the primary mode of transportation, when airplanes weren’t even on the radar (pun intended), when church bells chiming two miles away were a common sound o’er the landscape….. There is nothing as dear as holding a book that belonged to an age that I can only fathom in what’s left of my mind. And then there’s character…the etched-in names of long deceased persons on the inside leafs of old books per instance, sometimes with dates and towns inclusive. I’ve got a book that was once held in the hands of Verplanck Colvin! An e-book can never give you that!

  3. Boreas says:


    As long as electricity is available and cheap, eBooks are a good alternative. But heaven forbid if for some reason, what only a century before was considered a novelty and not a necessity, becomes prohibitively expensive or unreliable, those who have invested heavily in eBooks may regret the decision. However unlikely this dark (pun intended) scenario is, would you want your hard work to evaporate simply with technology changes? eBooks certainly are ephemeral, but paper books are less likely to go poof with the electric grid.

    I don’t know how the Library of Congress handles eBooks. Do they print hard copies? Are they depending too much on digital storage for existing printed books? Some people wear a belt with suspenders. I suggest you do the same with your excellent work.

  4. Some good ground covered here by Mr. Gooley. And a lot of this is genre dependent. For example, I’ve read that up to 90% of Romance books are ebooks; print has basically disappeared for these readers (and authors).

    But I take exception to one point made above: “One other factor playing a role in e-book sales is the price war that took place among the major publishers. The result is that many e-books cost more, which is being blamed for slower sales growth. […] Royalties on a product selling for $3 are very low per sale, and the unvarnished truth is that most authors don’t sell thousands of copies of a book (the average ranges from one to ten copies), so the time, work, and financial investment are simply not worth it if a book retails for just a few dollars.”

    First, ebooks cost more only with traditional publishers. Their ebooks are substantially overpriced compared to “Indies,” especially considering that there is very little added cost involved. So naturally, those publishers report flat or even declining ebooks sales. But Indies show rising sales in ebooks across the board.

    Second, I’m afraid your math is off on the royalties. I have a new historical fiction ebook edition priced at $4.99. I receive a direct deposit from Amazon of 70% of that (minus a small handling charge), or ~$3.50. A comparable book to mine from a major publisher is priced at $10.99. Assuming a standard 25% of “publisher’s net,” that author is only seeing ~$2.00 of that. So who’s better off?

    Harald Johnson
    Author, “New York 1609”

  5. […] Local History Writers: Latest E-book and Print Trends […]

Wait! Before you go:

Catch up on all your Adirondack
news, delivered weekly to your inbox