Print Continues Its Death Spiral

JK Rowling’s announcement that she is self-publishing the Harry Potter e-books pretty much drowned everything else out yesterday, but there was some other news that should be highlighted.

The American Association of Publishers (AAP) released figures for April 2011. Adult Hardback was in first position again this month, with $111.4m in sales (a sharp drop of over 20% from $142.9m in April 2010).

Adult trade paperback was in second position again this month with $95.9m (down from $128.2m or a drop of 25%). Ebooks held steady in third position with $72.8m (an increase of 165% on last year’s $27.4m).

Adult mass market paperback is again in the doldrums this month with $28.5m (a collapse of 42% from $49.1m).

The overall picture is quite clear. E-books continue their surge, but adult mass market paperback is in freefall, and the rest of the print categories don’t look too healthy either. Remember, these are year-on-year comparisons above which should filter out any seasonal variance.

Speaking of which, another pattern is emerging which I have hinted at before. Many products are seasonal for one reason or another. For print books, the period in the run-up to Christmas was always the busiest time of year.

However, with e-books we are seeing a slightly different pattern emerging – at least at this early stage in the market. The busy period seems to begin in October with the launch of all the latest e-readers, and builds up throughout the run-up to the holidays with all the major new releases, culminating in an explosion in December which carries right through to February as first-time entrants into the market (those that purchased or were gifted e-readers) load up their devices.

Naturally, if you have a peak, you will have a trough, and summer appears to be that for e-books. It makes sense. When the market is this young, figures will be skewed by new entrants who are attracted by new e-readers and lower prices (as each model comes out).

Looking ahead, this will only continue until all those who are going to switch to e-books do switch to e-books, and then I expect the matured e-book market to resemble more closely the seasonality of print books where major releases are geared towards the run-up to the holidays.

As for bookstores, the hurt just continues. Borders future will be decided next month. Whatever emerges (if anything does) will not be the bookselling force of the past.

Barnes & Noble are only showing growth online, and in non-book store products. More and more bookshelves are being taken out for Nook display areas and toys and games. Less shelf space means more midlisters in the warehouse, or never ordered to begin with.

This leads to lower print runs, which increases printing costs, which increases book prices, which sends more people online for discounts, or encourages them to switch to e-books, which leads to lower bookstore sales of books, which leads to… you get the idea.

This is a death spiral for print. It’s not going to be pretty.


I would just like to give a quick thank you for another very nice review, this time of Transfection. It’s very much appreciated.

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.

18 Replies to “Print Continues Its Death Spiral”

  1. For their own downfall the publishers may say special thanks to the following elements;
    1. Restricting the market with stupid rules and nonsense prices.
    2. Alienating writers by using self proclaimed elitist agents (As always, there are exceptions.).
    3. And foremost; they may say thanks for their very own greed and control mania. When the writer has the very last word in everything (Cover, story flow, etc, etc…), when the industry is became a cartel system where quality is replaced by quantity, when the writer is getting less money for his own work, while everyone else, agents, publishers and retailers get much more… well, I’m not surprised that writers are drawing the line.

  2. No question JK Rowling has just freshly greased the slippery slope.

    The question for authors now approaching or being approached by agents is how quickly this will accelerate and whether the agent can offer them anything meaningful.

    We’ve just turned down an offer from one of the biggest New York agencies to rep our new crime thriller series because they wanted us to hold back on e-publishing and hang around for the paper version to hit the stores in maybe two years time. Yeah, right.

    Just how many book-stores will there be left in two years time?

    Hopefully Rowling’s move will be the wake up call for the agents still with their heads stuck in the sand.

    The future is digital, and anyone still chasing the dream of their book on the plinth in the high-street store needs to get real.

    1. Hi Mark,

      It may be a wake-up call for some, but for others I’m not so sure. Their is a lot of denial going on, which manifested itself quite clearly with lots of people claiming that JK Rowling isn’t self-publishing. Sure, whatever you want to believe! But what JK Rowling does or doesn’t do has little effect on this irreversible trend. The dominance of e-books is inevitable. It’s simple economics. However, people are leading with their hearts and not their heads.

      I don’t own an e-reader, and I only usually read short fiction on my computer. I prefer print. I like bookstores. But I also have very little say in what the future is going to be like. The writing is on the wall, but you can’t force people to read it.


  3. I need to do some graphs on the increases/decreases in ebook/print. It seems like, off the top of my head each new AAP shows tripple digit increases for ebooks and 20% – 35% decline in print. Another thing to add to my to do list.

    Thanks for keeping an eye on things out there David.

    1. Yes. I think last month was the only one that didn’t show dramatic year-on-year drops in all print categories. E-book year-on-year growth has remained reasonably stable – a rough guess for the year as a whole would be about the same as this month 150+%

  4. I keep getting surprised by how badly mass market books are doing. And then I remind myself that mass market books come out usually at least a YEAR behind trade paperbacks and hardbacks. Not to mention I’ve noticed greater numbers of books aren’t available in mass market at ALL. So, um, duh.

    And Dave, how much of that $114.4 mil is actually profit, I wonder? What quantity of books does it equate to? It’s easy to say hardbacks are leading when they cost $25 or more each.

      1. Well, it’s hard to say exactly. These figures are predominantly from the larger houses and their e-books will be skewed towards the higher end of the spectrum ($7.99 to $14.99)

    1. Shea,

      I usually attach “health warnings” to this figures for a number of reasons.

      #1 They only include data from a limited number of houses (usually larger ones), and don’t include most smaller presses, e-publishers, or any self-publishers.
      #2 As such, these figures will underplay e-book numbers
      #3 It’s a kind of apples and oranges comparison. Print figures are books ordered by bookstores, not sold. So it includes all the books they will eventually get returned (which is a lot), and those won’t be counted as a minus in the next month’s figures.

      For a great discussion on all that (esp. #3) see this article:

      Having said all of that, it’s the best snapshot of the industry currently available, and is useful for spotting trends. As to your questions, yes this is in dollar terms, so hardbacks will count for a lot. The opposite kind of figures (units sold) only tell you so much as well because it will include discounted books and cheap e-books. It’s good to keep an eye on both kinds of figures to get a fuller picture. Amazon, for example, are selling more e-books than print (in units sold). B&N are selling three times the amount online (print and e-books) than store purchases.

      Taking all of that into account, it’s clear this is only headed one way.


      1. The prices for the ebooks are from major publishers so they would have the price tag of major publishing not indie prices. So those prices are probably comparable to trade paperback. If you wanted to get an estimate. Does that sound right or have I muddied the waters?

  5. I hope it isn’t a death spiral for print, but maybe your right. I just got my kids school books the other day ( think real books not text books) and I just made me happy to see them all and touch them and see how thick each was. I like libraries and bookstores (even when they aren’t like they used to be). It seems sad that my home library might be considered quaint or even historic one day.

  6. I try to stay away from predicting the future. I suck at it. But there are a couple of developments I can’t seem to shake.

    1) A major NY agent telling me the industry is in the worst shape of his thirty-year career; and
    2) The number of agents who are *obsessed* with posting negative blog entries about self-publishing *at least* once a week, usually 2-3 times a week. Why the constant harping and hostility? Unless some of them really do feel threatened. Then I end up asking myself why they would feel threatened.

    1. 1. I hope THAT NY agent will survive (If I think for the right person as he is one of few true professionals.).
      2. Defaming self publishers are became more and more common not just by agents, but some fellow writers (AbsoluteWrite is a prime example for this.). What they don’t realize, defaming is highly unprofessional and as this is a relatively small circle, they’ll be the ones whose are going to suffer greater losses in a longer term. Oh, and they feel threatened because the present controlled “cartel” system what some agency and publisher established to keep talent outside, but keep their own people in the loop is starting to collapse. I could tell some long stories about this, but it would sound as a twisted conspiracy theory from X-Files. 🙂

  7. @Margo
    “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.”
    Arthur Schopenhauer
    German philosopher (1788 – 1860)

    Looks like we’re done with the first stage and are now firmly in the second stage by the sound of things.

  8. Pingback: I Love You, I Hate You – Miriam On e-Books And The Real thing. « mark williams international

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