Stop Fighting It, E-book Dominance Is Inevitable

I have a confession to make. I’ve never really liked hardbacks.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I like looking at them. I like touching them. I like holding them. I think they are beautiful objects.

I just don’t like reading from them, they are cumbersome, heavy, uncomfortable to read when lying down, and difficult to lug from place to place.

And they are expensive. The cloth cover, acid-free paper, and pristine dust-jacket all cost money. When the publisher factors in storage, delivery, and returns, as well as all those free copies for reviewers and promotions, there are a lot of costs they have to pass on to the reader.

It’s not all bad for the publishers – they love hardbacks for a reason – there is also a healthy margin. Authors love them too. And distributors. And booksellers. Hardbacks are far juicier all round than trade paperbacks (the outsize paperback that is becoming more common), or mass market paperbacks (the common, smaller, cheaper paperback).

There is a lot of interest in all of these communities in protecting its sales, which is why other formats are held back to maximise the hardback sales.

Problem is, people aren’t buying it anymore.

Hardback sales have collapsed. If we take a look at adult trade sales for the month of February historically, hardback sales were $111.9m for the month in 2007, the dropped but flatten out at around $80m for the next three years, but in February, they plummeted to $46.2m.

There is no doubt that the rise of e-publishing and the increased popularity of self-publishing are putting downward pressure on price, and squeezing hardback.

But it’s not all about money.

Trade paperbacks are cheaper, but they are down from a high of $128.8m in 2006 to $81.2m in 2011. Mass market paperbacks are cheaper again, often only $7 or $8 a book, but they too have dropped, from a high of $59.5m in 2008 to only $29.3m in 2011 (same source).

E-book pessimists, who concede that hardback is in trouble and will continue to lose market share, seem to think that paperback will buck this trend, and that e-books will plateau soon.

I’m not sure there is much evidence for that.

The internet has revolutionised every business it has come into contact with. Publishing is no different, and the pace of growth of e-books only truly surprises those who forget that.

The book industry isn’t very good at collating accurate up-to-date figures, and doesn’t often share all the information it has. Amazon is particularly tight-lipped, and as we move towards an age where the majority of print book sales will be online and the majority of book sales will be e-books, this should give some cause for concern.

We can only work with the figures we do have, and even if they don’t capture all the market, the underlying trends are obvious.

The American Association of Publishers (AAP), regularly collects data from trade publishers, broken down into the various formats: e-books, audiobooks, and print (which in turn is sub-divided into children’s and adults’ hardback, mass market paperback, and trade paperback.

While their press release doesn’t cover all trade publishers in the US, in the last figures, 84 houses reported print data and 16 reported e-book data, and it is considered the best snapshot of the industry currently available.

The standard measure of how well e-books is to express their sales as a percentage of the entire print trade market (all those sub-divisions I mentioned above).

Here are some historical figures (courtesy of Robin Sullivan of Ridan Publishing) showing the market share of all trade books that e-books have captured:

  • 2005 – 0.3%
  • 2006 – 0.5%
  • 2007 – 0.6%
  • 2008 – 1.2%
  • 2009 – 3.2%
  • 2010 – 8.3%

As I mentioned in my previous post on this, in the latest figures, for February 2011, e-books have surged in the two months since those figures were produced. They are now at 29.5% of the market, making e-books the #1 selling format for the first time.

This only includes trade publishers; it doesn’t include self-publishers. Neil at E-book comments estimates the share of the market, once self-publishers and smaller presses are added to the mix, at 34.87%.

Some have urged caution, saying that the boom in February was a hangover from post-Christmas e-book bingeing by new Kindle owners. The figures for March will be out in a couple of weeks, but one thing that is clear, the underlying trend. E-books are exploding.

The growth is undeniable, and the rate of growth is astonishing, surprising most commentators.

However, print is still 70.5% of the market, and many experts have tried to dampen down some of the speculation of how much of the market e-books could capture. They feel that there is a natural high-water mark that e-books can’t go beyond, and many have pegged this at 50% or less.

I’m not so sure.

Boomers Driving Adoption

Early adopters tend to be an indicator of where the market is going, but is interesting about this is that a lot of change is being driven by the older generation.

Frustrated with the smaller selection, limited availability, and extra cost (and weight) of large print books, Boomers have been turning to e-readers in their droves, delighted with the ability to resize the font at will.

Others with eyesight difficulties have been early adopters too, some enjoying extended reading again where it caused them trouble before. There are a lot of book sales between these two groups, and I can’t see either going back to print.

But this isn’t the only thing driving change.

Feedback Loops

Tim Spalding of Library Thing contends that “the logic of e-books success has inbuilt feedback loops.” In other words, at a certain point, success becomes self-perpetuating.

In his article on November 1 last year, he gave his reasoning (and a large chunk is worth quoting):

1. E-books win on convenience above all; you can download something and start reading it immediately. Bookstores win on browsing and socializing. As e-books cannibalize print sales, booksellers will go out of business, making paper books increasingly hard to find, and therefore less convenient, harder to browse and less socially rewarding. E-books kill bookstores and dead bookstores drive e-books–a classic feedback loop.

2. Paper books depend upon economies of scale. As you print and distribute more books the cost per book goes down rapidly. The physical-book industry depends upon these economies. But when scale shrinks, everything runs in reverse. As e-books take off paper-book costs will rise, making them relatively more expensive (3), and others will become unprofitable, eliminating the choice altogether (4).

3. E-books are already cheaper than printed books, and bound to get cheaper still. If popular print books are cheap because the marginal costs are low, digital books have no marginal costs. They’re not free to produce; even apart from money to the author and publisher there is a substantial cost associated with preparing the digital file. That cost is “baked into” the e-book price. But it’s a fixed price, divided over the total number of copies sold. As volume increases that price will be spread out further.

4. As books drop out of print, e-readers become a necessity. E-readers today are a choice. Some prefer them, but nobody needs one. As books drop out of paper, e-readers will become necessary for people who don’t want to be constrained in their purchases. This will drive device adoption and therefore e-book purchases (5).

5. As e-readers proliferate, e-reading does too. e-books suffer from a relatively high initial cost, but e-books are generally cheaper. Once a consumer gets over that cost and has an e-reader all subsequent book-buying decisions are influenced by that sunk costs.

Tim Spalding goes on to make further points to support his contention about the continuing improvement of e-readers and e-books, social reading, and genres and formats that didn’t work in print, and the whole thing is worth reading, including the comments.

The point, in brief, is that all of the factors which are driving e-book success now will amplify each other leading to a “virtuous circle” of growth while print is caught in a “vicious circle” of decline.

This article was written six months ago, when e-books were 7% of the market. He prefaced his argument by saying that when e-books rose far above 20% of the market and became the dominant book format, these feedback loops would come into play.

We are there already.

E-books are now 29.5% of the market. They are the dominant format. Print is in freefall. Bookstores are in closing down. Print is becoming a subsidiary right.

And we aren’t even close to saturation point yet.

A lot of people will buy e-readers this year. Even more will buy tablets of some sort. Many more again will buy new smartphones.

More and more people are going to come into contact with e-books for the first time. And when they do, when they discover the advantages: the instant availability, the portability, the increasing selection, the cost; many are going to switch from print.

It doesn’t matter if a sizeable portion of readers still prefer print; its decreasing viability will continue to threaten those that publish it, distribute it, and sell it, ultimately restricting the selection of those that read it.

At some point, print fans may be forced to choose between an extremely expensive limited edition hardback, and going digital.

As the internet grows and expands, and broadband and wifi connections improve across the globe and become more affordable, more and more of the global population become connected, and those connections become deeper.

And, as e-readers and tablets and smartphones become more sophisticated – and cheaper – the e-book revolution will spread beyond the borders of America and go global.

The future has happened already.

David Gaughran

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

0 Replies to “Stop Fighting It, E-book Dominance Is Inevitable”

  1. David I agree that the dominance of ebooks will only continue to grow…for some of the very reasons you cited, convenience and price. I continue to be shocked, though, at the rate of growth in such a short time period. Just this evening I uploaded an updated version of my novel to Smashwords. It wound up being #2400 something in the queue. When I uploaded the original in March, it was in the 700s. I think that says a lot.

  2. Yup, I’m a boomer and I enjoy changing kindle fonts but I also enjoyed some hardbacks for the same reason – better fonts. Biography of Bobby Robson nicely dip-in-able and some good pics to relish. When I think of other hardbacks – Inside the Neolithic Mind and suchlike – I once again value the pics.

    Images on Kindle have not impressed me yet. Maybe a new generation of readers will do the job. Maybe…

  3. Very informative post, cheers David. “E-books are now 29.5% of the market. They are the dominant format.” – says it all really. I don’t believe that print will ever disappear – and I don’t want it to, either – but for the numerous reasons you’ve mentioned, digital is going to be the largest market.

    Good luck with the ebook, by the way.

    1. Hi Matt,

      I think print will hold on a little longer in non-fiction. At the moment, it’s very hard to produce a good-looking non-fiction book. But maybe that will change quickly too, seeing the success of Al Gore’s app for the iPad.


      1. Well there is PDF, which is pretty much the only ebook format I’m willing to accept. Even with novels I find epub , mobi and the others ugly.

        Of course I’m just not interested in reading fiction on a screen. For me its print or audiobooks. Actually these days I tend to favour audiobooks quite a bit, I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit.

        1. Hey,

          I don’t feel that differently to you. I don’t own an e-reader so only read the occasional e-book on my computer. With the internet one click away, I find it very distracting, and can only really handle reading short stories. I haven’t tried a Kindle (but I guess I will at some point), and have no immediate plans to buy one because of crazy taxes and charges here in Sweden.

          However, I think what I like and what has very little influence over what the future is going to turn out like. The economics of print and the terminal decline of bookshops mean that e-books will dominate even if everyone prefers print. The basic reason being that people don’t prefer it enough to pay higher prices in sufficient numbers to keep it alive.

          Maybe if the publishing industry found a way to ditch returns and sell books on consignment (and found some way to sweeten the deal so the booksellers didn’t go out of business as a result), then print could survive a little longer. Otherwise, I can’t see it.


  4. If I love a book, I want it in hardcover. There will always be collectors like me and niche markets that are not served as well by e-books. I find anything heavy on photography and illustration doesn’t have the same richness when viewed on screen. I can see publishers moving to a print on demand model or doing small runs of artisan books similar to Cory Doctorow’s “With a Little Help” hardcover.

    Just my two cents

    1. Hey Red,

      I see the same future. Beautifully produced limited edition hardbacks for the superfans and collectors, e-books for the masses, and a limited amount of PoD for those who don’t want to switch to e-books (which will be a minority). I loved what Cory Doctorow did with his last book. There was a great series in one of the US publisher trade mags on the whole process, but I can’t remember which – maybe Publisher’s Weekly.

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