eBooks are not taking over
Digital eBooks are not taking over from print books in the same way that online newspaper websites are destroying print papers, MP3 files took almost all of the CD music market, or digital cameras and smartphones replaced film for consumer photography.
This last week saw two articles on this debate. The New York Times started us off with a piece based on data from the Association of American Publishers (AAP), which said that eBook sales were down 10% in the last year. The very insightful Mathew Ingram replied with his own article in Fortune, which said that the AAP data didn’t tell the whole story, and eBook sales from non-AAP publishers were doing much better. Mathew went on to say
…the overall trend in book publishing remains clear: Digital sales are going to increase, and print is likely to become a niche market over time, just as it is becoming in the newspaper and magazine industries.
I admire Mathew very much, and we almost always agree – but not on this issue. Two big reasons:
First, while I agree the AAP numbers are incomplete, that only means that eBook sales are likely to be down less than the headlined 10%. They might be down 5%, flat or even up 5%. But they are not out there stealing huge market share from print books! Based on my estimate for 2015 final US book sales, revenues for print books will be down about 11% from 2010 levels based on constant 2014 dollars. Print has been AFFECTED by digital, but only marginally so. (And the US is the market which has seen eBooks have the greatest success: on a global basis print books sales have been virtually unaffected. eBooks are under 5% of sales in most countries.)
Don’t get me wrong: down 11% has hurt print publishers and bookstores. But does this really compare to what we have seen in other industries that have been digitally disrupted? US print newspaper ad revenues are down 78% from their peak; CD sales are down 92%, and film camera sales have fallen 99.5% since 1999. When we compare how eBooks have affected print book sales…well, “one of these things is not like the other.” 🙂
Secondly, the shift in the growth of eBooks from AAP publishers to other publishers (see chart below) is very real, and not to be ignored. But equally, I do need to point out that the kinds of eBooks being published by those indie publishers do fall into certain categories. They tend to be what is called genre fiction, often romance, erotica or fan-fiction. Nothing wrong with any of those, but they tend to serve niche markets, with low price points, low volumes and an element of “disposable reading.”
If I compare what is going on with eBooks and the print book market, it would be very different from what we have seen in music, magazines or newspapers. Digital disruption did not mean that MP3 files were the preferred format for emerging acts and polka bands, while Taylor Swift still sold lots of CDs. Digital shifts didn’t mean science fiction fanzines went online, while Time and Newsweek kept selling tens of millions of print copies weekly. And the newspaper story is not that the Moose Jaw Times Herald was crushed while the Toronto Star kept thriving in print.
Across music, magazines and newspapers the digital destruction has affected all artists, all genres, all titles and all publishers more or less equally. That is NOT happening in the book industry: eBooks are thriving in certain pockets…but they are not doing as well in the segments that most readers and book buyers care about.
Andy Weir’s The Martian (now a Major Motion Picture!) was originally self-published as an eBook. Yay! It sold incredibly well…35,000 copies in only three months! Double yay! If eBooks were truly the future of books, he and the book might well have stayed there.
But he didn’t. He took a $100,000 advance, submitted to professional editing and added more content, and launched it in print. Where it sold hundreds of thousands of copies in hardback and paperback, and continues to sell out of bookstores I visit around the world.
To be blunt, most people view eBooks as a reasonable place to start, but “REAL books” come in print versions, and usually outsell the eVersions by tens or even hundreds of times.
Unlike other print publishing businesses affected by digital, and based on the evidence so far, it looks to me like eBooks are the real niche market.