Adult Fiction Print Sales Collapse: Down 25.7%

A cursory look at the Kindle Top 100 will tell you that all the action is in Adult fiction. This is especially true for self-published work, where a non-fiction or children’s/YA hit is a rare beast.

This was borne out in a recently released Bowker survey covering the last quarter of 2010. That showed e-books as having captured a share of the adult fiction market that was three times larger than the respective share of the children’s/YA market and more than twice as large as that of non-fiction.

That in itself poses more questions than answers, but there is an obvious conclusion: this first big wave of new e-reader owners are fiction fans.

There is, of course, another side to that coin. Neilsen Bookscan, which covers approximately 70% of all print sales (and thus is a far fuller picture of the print market than the monthly AAP figures) have recorded a huge drop – again – for print.

In the first half of 2011, print (units sold) dropped 10%. But if you drill down on the figures, the fate of adult fiction becomes stark: down 25.7%. That is a huge drop in six months. Mass market paperback sales are being eviscerated by e-books, but no category seems safe: trade paperpack was down 6.8% and hardcover was down 10%.

This tallies up with the monthly AAP figures which have showed huge drops in mass market paperbacks in the first four months of 2011 (and they measure by revenue rather than units sold).

To look at it from a further angle, we also now know that Amazon have been selling more e-books (in terms of volume) than all print categories combined since the start of April. Amazon tends to lead the market in this regard, so it seems certain that poor print numbers will only continue.

As publishers continue to scramble to digitize their backlists, and chain stores clear floor space for toys and games and e-reader displays, it seems that independent bookstores are the last real bastion for trade print.

These numbers will only add to their hurt, but there was a piece of news yesterday which might give them a glimmer of hope, but only if they are willing to embrace the digital future rather than shun it, and if they don’t forget where their strengths lie.

The South Korean consumer electronics company iRiver has launched the first e-reader to be integrated with the Google e-books platform.

The iRiver Story HD will have wifi, a 6″ e-Ink screen, a QWERTY keyboard, and will retail for the same price as the Kindle, $139.99. It goes on sale this Sunday, at Target.

It was widely, and erroneously, reported as a “Google branded” device. This isn’t true. Google don’t have a horse in this race. They’re offering free, branded jockeys.

As with smartphones, Google aren’t in the device manufacturing business. They supply a free platform for any e-reader manufacturer to use, as long as they tie the device to the Google ebookstore.

In other words, we will be seeing plenty more e-readers, from a wide variety of companies, all using the Google platform, and all tied to the Google ebookstore.

What has this got to do with independent bookstores? Well, at the end of last year, Google partnered with the American Booksellers Association (ABA), allowing independent bookstores to have their own customized e-store, powered by Google.

While two hundred or so independent bookstores signed up, most haven’t. The reasons for their reluctance are many and varied (and understandable), but now that there is a device on the market which is tied to the Google ebookstore (with many more to follow), they may revisit their objections.

As for the e-reader itself, it seems like a bit of a retrograde step. It has no touchscreen, or color, so they are already popular devices out there (many cheaper) with better specifications.

However, this isn’t about this e-reader. The first Android phones weren’t exactly game-changers. What catapulted Google to significant market share in smartphones was the ability of any manufacturer to use their platform.

Could the same happen with e-books? I’m not so sure. Google has a tiny, single digit, percentage of the e-book market. While they have the largest selection of free e-books (over 2 million public domain titles, thanks to their controversial scanning program), their paid selection lags far behind Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

In addition, their store won’t be winning over competitor’s customers. It’s not the most fun to navigate around. When you contrast it with something like Google+, it’s quite clear that they haven’t brought their “A” game, not yet at least.

We all know that Google have the resources to build something better. Maybe they are waiting for the Google Books Settlement to be finally, you know, settled. Once that is sorted out, they will be able to integrate their store into search in a much more meaningful way (don’t forget those 15 million books they have scanned).

So, while I wouldn’t count Google out of the race just yet, I don’t see them being a significant player in the short-term.

But what about the independent bookstores that have made the leap to e-books? How are they faring?

I’ve been confused by their approach. Essentially most stores have a simple shopfront, with some recommended titles, and then a search box which can access all of the near 3 million books in the Google ebookstore.

This, to me, runs counter to what an independent bookstore is about. They generally have higher prices, for a number of reasons, but the customers who shop there aren’t motivated by price. They go there for the service, the handselling, and, yes, the curated selection, .

However, none of this is being replicated online. They have just thrown the doors of their e-bookstore open to all 3 million titles. This, I think, is a mistake.

While normally I would argue that the store with the biggest selection wins, independent bookstores must know that they can’t beat Amazon at their own game.

Customers who favor price, convenience, and a larger selection (which I think make up the vast majority), won’t be won over to an independent bookstore’s e-shop.

However, that’s not all customers, and there’s plenty of money in the margins. Independent bookstores should focus on their strengths. They should curate the selection of e-books that they offer, so that customers know that this book has been “approved” by a bookseller whose taste they trust.

Some may think I’m advocating the very same position that the gatekeepers do, i.e. that readers want someone to curate the selection of books for them, that readers want some kind of seal of approval (like that a book has come from a traditional publishing house which vets submissions).

That’s not what I’m saying. What I am saying is that there is a minority of readers that feel this way, and those are the customers that independent bookstores should be targeting with their e-offerings.

It shouldn’t be too hard to target them, they are the readers that used to shop in their stores.

Disclaimer: I’m a former employee of (and shareholder in) Google. I no longer own shares in the company, or have ties of any kind.

David Gaughran

Born in Ireland, he now lives in a little fishing village in Portugal, although this hasn’t increased the time he spends outside. He writes fiction under another name, has helped thousands of authors build a readership, and has created marketing campaigns for some of the biggest self-publishers on the planet. Friend to all dogs.

33 Replies to “Adult Fiction Print Sales Collapse: Down 25.7%”

    1. I avoided it for quite a while, to be honest. It was hard to figure out where they were going with it. Still not completely sure. When the store opened in December there were great expectations, and I think it’s fair to say that Google has fallen far short of those – so far. But this game is far from over, and there is plenty of time for them (and Apple) to become serious players – if they want to. I don’t think it’s a major priority for either company right now though.

  1. Am I missing something? Why would anyone go to a bookshop to buy ebooks? Isn’t the whole point that you can buy a book from your computer without leaving home, or from your Kindle when on the move, and get it instantly?

    1. It’s not so much that they would actually purchase e-books in the store, it’s more that the (often) fiercely loyal independent bookstores can continue to support their favorite store, even after shifting to e-books.

    2. And the point I was trying to make was that there are a minority of customers that want their selections curated by tastemakers like independent bookstore owners (usually those same fiercely loyal customers), and that independent bookstore owners should curate their selection of e-books like they do with print books in their stores.

  2. This is a huge tidal wave of change, and those who don’t surf on the top will get crushed below! It would be horribly confusing except for blogs like yours, David, who explain things so well.

    1. Chaz,

      I think a lot of writers are sitting on the sidelines, waiting for things to “settle down” to some kind of order. While these seismic changes won’t continue forever, and some kind of order will emerge from the chaos, it will be a far more complex set of relationships then the old liner publishing chain of writer to agent, to publisher, to distributor, to retailer, to reader. Those that dive in now will be able to stake out some ground. Those that wait gain nothing.


  3. Very interesting! Off I go to direct my favourite indie bookstore to this post… I really don’t want them to vanish beneath the publishing shuffle that’s going on… and this post certainly sheds light on why it would be important for indie stores to rethink how they’re going about entering the ebook world…

      1. Thanks, David. Forgot about that one. Definitely provides food for thought and lots of good ideas. At the risk of being slapped on the wrist (for inundating the indie store I’m thinking of with blog links), am gonna send that to them too:) Cheers.

  4. Another great post! I have been thinking a lot about the plight of small, independent bookstores. I think they need to value-add to stay alive. And by that I mean things like: more author signings and readings, more specialized books (why w…ould I go there to get the same content I can download from home, but I might go there to get special editions that are not available as eBooks), more bundled experiences (I’m waiting for the waterpark / pagan bookstore). Maybe even giveaways and contests. And they should somehow get on the POD bandwagon so you can go to a kiosk and print a book while you sip on a latte. Perhaps they can even do wine tastings that are paired with appropriate books (lol). Ah, a bookstore with a liquor license… 🙂

  5. I have high hopes for Google’s eBook venture. Mainly because if they’re pushing for ePub, it will bring it one step closer to epub being the standard. Then perhaps Amazon will start using ePub instead of mobi, and I can start buying books from Amazon for my nook instead of B&N all the time (as Amazon seems to be more indie friendly.)

  6. I think independent bookstores have a nice window (a very short window albeit) where they can train and get new skills that will allow them to get customer input into their website and gradually move their profit base online if their brick and mortar store fails. There is probably two to six more years to move in this direction if they keep their head about themselves.

    It is job training. All fields of business have to update — they aren’t an isolated case although when you are in it it can feel lonely.

    The wonderful thing about the Internet is that it is expert/information based. If you know books really well, enough to make solid recommendations and speak knowledgeably than the Internet is actually a great place for you.

    I keep thinking there must be a good marriage between physical community businesses and online merging, but it is difficult to see it for the simple fact that no one has really done it that I know of. Maybe pawn stores? They have a select number of objects in the store (their stock changes) and they have an online presence for those far from them where they offer expert advice and the ability to track down rare items. The advantage that a bookstore owner has is a ready available stock that the online customer can download. Immediate profit.

    Yeah, I don’t want to run the world, I just want to design it :).

  7. As a writer, I’m totally sold on the Kindle. Kind of like flying a helicopter in how sensitive (my Vietnam prison/Captain Kidd Treasure memoir was a Top 100 Bestseller in Adventurers & Explorers a week ago, but now lower), but once the momentum goes well, it’s just like paperback/hardcopy!

  8. I was looking more carefully at the Google E-store and the reviews for Lauren Kate’s book passion were linked to their Good Read reviews. Are they related? Sorry if that is obvious to everyone but me.

    1. No. They are separate. It was like visiting GR alternative world for moment.

      For a moment I thought Google had launched into coolness with their reviews until I saw they just syphoned off GR.

  9. Tangential: there is an obvious conclusion: this first big wave of new e-reader owners are fiction fans.

    Well, yes–but it’s also true that e-readers are not well-designed for reading anything *but* fiction. The small screens don’t support complex layouts common for many textbooks, and many ebooks are released with rudimentary or no tables of contents, much less an index. Neither epub nor mobi supports footnotes worth a damn. Multi-ebook navigation is a nightmare for researchers. On the casual level, there’s no “bathroom reader collection of editorials” allowing the equivalent of “just flip through slowly until an interesting phrase catches my eye; I’ll read from there.”

    Fiction has exploded into ebooks in ways that nonfiction hasn’t, in part because that’s what the hardware supports.

    1. Elf,

      Tell me about it. I have spent the last month putting together a non-fiction e-book. It’s a real pain. You can’t do all the things you usually do in non-fiction to break up the text. You can’t use different fonts, you can’t have break-out boxes, graphics, bars, charts, diagrams, pictograms, layout – all difficult, impossible, or very restricted.

      The limitations are part format and part device. You can do a hell of a lot more with EPUB, but the readers often can’t handle it well. In any event, it makes little sense (for me) to design different books for different e-readers.

      In short, I agree.

  10. David, have you considered putting your shorts (by which I mean stories!) onto Google Books? By way of an experiment? I hadn’t even thought of it, but we Indies need as many avenues as possible to the public, and even with a tiny share of the market, it’s a share – maybe Google Books people only buy from there? It could be an untapped resource – the undiscovered country of the Indie world? With dinosaurs and pterodactyls and books that have been specially bred for it… I think I’ll go and have a look!

    1. Hi Tony,

      Last time I checked, Google only allowed US writers, which is a pain. But many indies don’t list with them for a number of reasons – one being that they arbitrarily cut your prices (and Amazon price match, screwing your royalties), and the other is that they don’t sell any books (yet).


    2. If you had a bunch of stuff that didn’t make the cut from your last book, you could release it as a bunch of unconnected episodes. You could call it THAT BEAR ATE MY SHORT STORIES!

  11. Pingback: Adult Fiction Print Sales Collapse? « Kindle Authors Australia
  12. I’m afraid that the logic of ebooks make them incompatible with physical bookstores. God knows there are a lot of ideas thrown around about integrating the two but simply nothing I have seen suggests anything that would make a meaningful contribution towards paying the rent.

    Google ebooks is simply irrelevant to this issue. Either (some) Indies will start getting real traction with ebooks via Google and thus ultimately shed their ailing and failing physical stores. Or they will prove unable to transfer their skills from selling pbooks to online and go down anyway.

    Either way almost no bookstores are going to survive the maturation of the ebooks market – itself some years away. A combination of pure nostalgia and a refusal to realise that the future will not resemble the present – these seems to be behind the curious blindness to recognise that ebooks will destroy the physical bricks and mortar world.

    1. Willem,

      I actually agree with you.

      Print has a long way to fall yet, and may only hang on to 20% of the market in the future. That will mean the end of most bookstores.

      However, some will survive, as there will also be a market – at some level – for new and used print books, from people that don’t want to shop online.

      I think these stores will have to diversify greatly. Some are experimenting with starting their own publishing lines and instore POD. Others are branching out into e-books.

      My point was that the typical customer of an independent bookstore is one that likes their books curated, as opposed to the mass selection on Amazon. I think there is an opportunity there for indie bookstores to handhold them in the digital world.

      Even if it only keeps them in business for five years longer, it’s better than nothing. And some of them might be successful at it and could branch out beyond their own customer base and become tastemakers for even more readers. It’s possible.


  13. As an aside, and am I not saying that a lot lately? The Chicago Tribune had an an editorial about how print publishers have to up their marketing and ad games to keep up with Kindle. The author mentioned that epub sales were now about 5 (five) percent of the market. How can that be when they have outstripped print sales in some months? This guy was not an epub supporter tho.

    1. That guy didn’t have a clue.

      He seemed to think that all e-books were indies and that publishers only did print versions. He was calling on publishers to “fight back” against the Kindle and run advertising campaigns about why print was better.

      The comments were quite funny. Lots of things like “Um. Dude. Publishers make e-books too.”

      I think it’s safe to ignore whatever stats he came up with. E-books are around 25% of the market (a conservative estimate).

  14. See? There you go. Advantage number whatever. I had the piece of newspaper in front of me and didn’t get to see the comments. I’ll check the website and put my further 2 cents in.

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