Local Writers: Latest E-book and Print Trends

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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.

A version of this article first appeared on the Adirondack Almanack.

4 thoughts on “Local Writers: Latest E-book and Print Trends

  1. Harald Johnson

    Some good ground covered here by Mr. Gooley. But I take exception to one point made above: “…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.”

    No, it did not have to happen. Traditional publishers have decided to substantially overprice their ebooks, especially considering there is very little added cost involved. And Mr. Gooley’s math is off on the royalties. I have a new historical fiction ebook edition priced at $4.99. As an “Indie” author, 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 work is being “devaluated”?

    Harald Johnson
    Author, “New York 1609”

  2. Bruce Austin

    Thank you for this interesting essay.

    The tension between printed and e-books is less one of market dominance and reader (or author) preference and more one of which medium best serves the author’s and reader’s interests. Today, authors and publishers should ask: How can I leverage and exploit the unique advantages to and features of e-books for the benefit of scholarship, readers and, yes, profit?

    For the most part, today’s e-books are little more than printed books displayed on a screen. Why? The digital medium is far more robust than words printed on paper can ever hope for. Want to add sound? It’s there. Think moving or still images and illustrations help to better make your point? Add them. These two examples, of course, also make additional demands on authors and publishers: Obtaining (and paying) for permissions, for instance.

    Or, suppose you think some readers are willing to pay for a portion of your book, but either don’t want or prefer not to own all of it. E-books afford opportunities for slicing and dicing content (and regardless of what we might think of that) that is all but impossible, or at least uneconomical, in print. Books, like bakeries, can now offer their customers the whole pie or one slice. And, knowing that — that not all readers will begin on page one and progress sequentially through all that follows — what does that mean to authors and how they craft their texts?

  3. Ted Rice

    Epub3 was supposed to be able to incorporate audio and visual content into ebooks, but so far I haven’t seen any. One reason is because many reading devices don’t support it, another because you need a server to host the content on the web, which is expensive, and also it can’t be accessed if someone is reading offline. The domination of Kindle, which doesn’t support epub, is also a hindrance.


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