Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Is the e-book boom over?

by Sandra Parshall

For years we’ve heard that e-books are taking over publishing, that sales are increasing at a phenomenal rate every year, that digital is going to save writers and the book business as a whole. Common estimates had e-book market share reaching as much as 80% in the near future.

But all that is over. Digital Book World, an incessant promoter of the e-book form, is now asking “What happened to e-book growth?” A Book Industry Study Group (BISG) report has the answer: it’s stagnating. 

According to BISG, e-book market share has been flat, at around 30%, for the past year. Digital books account for under 15% of earnings.

And while a recent survey indicates that owners of e-book devices read as much as 60% more than other readers, BISG reports that the percentage of book buyers who read e-books at least once a week is stuck at around 20%. Only 25% of readers buy an e-book at least once a week.

However, BISG found that many readers plan to purchase e-book devices in the future, and say they will continue buying and reading e-books. The market may continue to grow, although much more slowly than in the first wild years of e-book popularity. Both the devices and the book format have quickly become established, acceptable alternatives to print, creating more and less expensive reading options and encouraging people to turn to books more often for entertainment. Mass market paperbacks, the most obvious victims of the digital revolution, continue to lose sales.

Digital book production is now an integral part of daily business at publishing houses large and small, and has inevitably led to changes as publishers view each acquisition as two separate entities, a print volume and an e-book. This article looks at how digital has altered production and workflow.

Agents and authors are increasingly concerned that publishers will eliminate print altogether for writers who aren’t proven mega-bestsellers. Publishers Weekly recently took a look at contracts that omit any guarantee of a print edition. 

Meanwhile, the booming world of self-publishing is experiencing its own growing pains. Bowker reported that the number of self-published titles in 2012 was the highest ever.

But in writers’ groups around the internet, what you’ll see these days are a lot of posts about a dropoff in sales and, consequently, earnings. Free books no longer lead to big bumps in sales. Lowering prices doesn’t work as well as it used to. Some writers think the answer is to write faster and put out more titles, closer together. Others point out that readers already have devices loaded with more e-books, many of them downloaded for free, than they can ever hope to read. Whether they will devote additional space and reading time to more and more books by the same writers is questionable. An increasing number of authors prefer to be hybrids, publishing in both digital and traditional print forms, rather than limiting their options.

Meanwhile, who rules the e-book bestseller lists? The same Big Five publishers who own the print lists. The top 10 e-books for the week ending October 27 were:

Allegiant by Veronica Roth, HarperCollins
Sycamore Row by John Grisham, Penguin Random House
The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty, Penguin Random House
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, Macmillan
Divergent by Veronica Roth, HarperCollins
Killing Jesus: A History by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard, Macmillan
The House of Hades by Rick Riordan, Hachette
Doctor Sleep by Stephen King, Simon & Schuster
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, Penguin Random House
The Longest Ride by Nicholas Sparks, Hachette


Sheila Connolly said...

On the plus side, e-publishing allows a lot of talented writers who have been unable to capture the attention of an agent or a major publisher to get their work out there and find readers.

On the minus side, I think a lot of writers, seeing how easy it is to do, tell themselves that they don't need a real editor and of course they can format it and upload it themselves--and it shows in the poor quality.

A lot of this is still shaking out. People already sold on e-readers will by the Big Name Authors as ebooks, but some of them may have been burned by poorly written and glitchy ebooks by unknown writers and may have become more cautious about buying.

Steven M. Moore said...

Hi Sandra,
Your post is depressing, but I've been reading several other posts expressing similar stats and similar views. I've experienced most of the negatives you mention, but will stick to my plan of releasing only ebooks.
The reasons: (1) I love to write. The ebook medium allows my team and me to release an ebook efficiently by jumping over many roadblocks associated with indie publishing in pbook format. After that initial MS, the process is still painful, but I've minimized the pain (rather, spread it out evenly over my team) so I can go on doing what I love. (2) It's the most cost-effective method for me. I invest plenty of time in my writing business, but I have minimized cash outlays because I do ebooks exclusively. Would I rather release an accompanying pbook? Sure--but I can't afford it. Another way to say that: if I also did pbooks, I'd have maybe 5 books instead of 14.
With respect to self-pubbing, I'm addicted, I guess. As Sheila points out, in the beginning, I was unable to capture the attention of an agent or any kind of publisher (many require you to go through agents, and I can tell you horror stories about them). But what's an author without readers? If I can entertain just one reader with just one story, I feel successful. With self-pubbing, I'm able to count many successes in that sense.
How this all shakes out in future years is anybody's guess, but we can all say that we're in the thick of it. Keep writing everyone!

Sandra Parshall said...

It's not that e-books are dying -- far from it. They're here to stay. But the sales are leveling off. I doubt that print will disappear anytime soon. The two will co-exist for a long time, I believe.

Self-published authors probably need to re-think their marketing, just as print authors continually do. What works for a while is bound to stop working at some point. Then you find a new way to sell your books. Marketing books, reaching readers, isn't all that different in the digital and print worlds.

Sally Carpenter said...

The problem is that many readers have stopped purchasing ebooks because if they wait long enough they can download the book for free. Some readers are no longer interested in actually paying for their reading material. I feel that since ebooks are no longer a novelty, authors should stop the freebie offers. A reader who pays for a book is more likely to actually read it rather than someone who just wants to build up a collection of hundreds of titles.

Elise M Stone said...

I think we have reached a period of stabilization in the ebook market, but I'm not sure things are as they seem to be according to the sources you've cited. For one thing, the Digital Book World study doesn't take into account the third and fourth quarters of 2013, which is where the most sales growth, like all retailing, is seen.

I also think the decline in those who read an ebook weekly is due to economic uncertainty. No one feels totally comfortable with the Affordable Care Act, especially in light of the problems with it getting started. People aren't sure what that will mean for their health care costs and even their employment, so they're being conservative in their spending habits.

I'm assuming your bestseller list is taken from the New York Times which, as we know, does not include Amazon sales. If you look at the Top 100 Kindle sales, there are a few overlaps (Ender's Game because of the movie and the reasonable price), but, for the most part, it doesn't include the books you cited.

I think the gold rush days when anyone could write a short (often poorly edited) book, set it to free for a few days, and reap huge financial rewards, are over. As Sally said, there is a group of readers who now assume that eventually every book will be free. There are others who refuse to pay the inflated prices set by traditional publishing. I've done it myself. If the ebook costs more or close to the same as the print book, I'll opt for getting the book from the library. Note, I do not buy the print book. A publisher who uses this kind of pricing annoys me enough that I won't buy it at all.

I think we will see another growth spurt as the younger generation, who do all things digital, get old enough to buy ereaders or tablets themselves.

The good news is that those who saw self-publishing as a get-rich-quick scheme will drop out over time, while those of us who want to get our (quality) stories out there will continue to write and publish for our readers.

Steven M. Moore said...

Hi Sandra,
Without getting into any political squabbles, I agree in general with what Sally and Elise say. Economic uncertainties, whatever their cause and whether real or perceived, are going to slow down purchases for entertainment.
Following Sally's suggestion, I've recently been using the Amazon freebies only to increase my name recognition. There aren't that many downloads anymore and the bumps in sales one used to receive are greatly diminished.
I've priced my books competitively and am reluctant to lower the prices now. I'll do so only as a function of age. Like Elise, I refuse to buy an ebook when the pbook is only a dollar or so more, and I refuse to buy any book that lists for more than $10--I can wait until the publisher lowers the price (most of these books are published traditionally).
I think I've said this here before (or maybe elsewhere?): the market is saturated. There are too many authors and too few readers. Whether the authors write well and whether the readers are discriminating is another question. Hopefully, I do both!