The Future Has Happened Already: E-books Overtake Paperback Sales in the U.S.

E-books are now the #1 selling format in the U.S.  And that’s not just in terms of volume, but in dollars too.

The Association of American Publishers (AAP) yesterday released sales figures for the month of February, and I was blown away.  E-book sales (year on year) grew over 200%.  They now comprise 29.5% of the market.  And this is only e-book data from 16 of the biggest publishers reporting versus 84 publishers reporting print data, the real number could be higher.

But the headline news was this: e-books are the top-selling format across all trade categories. More than paperback!

Wow. I would say eyebrows were raised all across Manhattan when they saw that one.

On the print side, numbers fell dramatically – combined adult trade categories were dropped a third. Overall, the increases in e-book sales did not make up for the drop in print. And one thing that might get lost in the shuffle: audiobooks increased over a third.

What does all this mean? Well, given that an author can earn 14.9% e-book royalties by going with a trade publisher or 70% by self-publishing, there will be a lot of top-selling writers (and their agents), pulling out their calculators and running the numbers.

This will go all the way down the food-chain too.  Mid-listers might have the most to gain from jumping ship, especially if they have a substantial backlog for which they control the e-rights.

And what about unpublished writers? The single biggest selling point for going with a trade publisher, their USP if you like, is their ability to get books in bricks and mortar stores. You can hire an editor, a graphic designer, a formatter, a printer, and pay them a one-off fee, and there work can be just as good, if not better than a commercially-published book (if you do it right).

But the one thing that trade publishers do, and do well, that no-one else in the business can really do on a large scale, is get print books into physical stores. And with each set of figures that comes out, that skill becomes worth less money.

To put it simply, if e-books are outselling paperbacks (and the numbers will only rise), and you can make four times as much money if you go it alone, why would you consider a trade publishing deal?

Then, when you factor in that it is going to take them 18 months to get a book to market, and you can do it in 1, and you add up the cost of the lost 17 months of sales, then even if you never sold a single paperback, you could be ahead by self-publishing.

Think what kind of audience you could grow in 17 months.


Here are some predictions:

1. There will be an increased scramble to get back-lists on sale in digital format.

2. Publishers and retailers are currently all over the place when it comes to reporting numbers. That’s going to have to change fast, e-books aren’t 2% of the market anymore, or we might start seeing a lot more stories like this.

3. There’s going to be an even greater push from agents and authors to increase their share of the digital pie, or to split-off e-rights.

4. There’s going to be more agents setting themselves up as publishers. Already we have Scott Waxman in the U.S. who has set up Diversion Books.  Now, some UK agents want to change their code of practice to get into the publishing game.

5. Conflict of interest is going to become a major issue. Agents will have to tread carefully.

6. By the end of the summer, a big-name author, and I mean a major international bestseller, is going to make the move to self-publishing, possibly splitting off their print rights.


For European publishers, it looks like figures are about 12 months behind the U.S. which gives them more time to prepare. Will they use it wisely? Not going on the comments coming out of the London Book Fair.

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.