The Relentless March of E-books

The AAP released their monthly figures (for May) on Thursday, and the same trends that we have seen all year have continued. Print is in freefall.

Adult hardback dropped 38.2% year-on-year, adult trade paperback fell 14.3%, and adult mass-market paperback plunged 39.4%. By contrast, e-books grew 146.9% year-on-year.

Children’s YA paperback bucked the trend by growing in May 2011 by 4.7% year-on-year. However, when we look at how all categories are performing in the first five months of 2011, these kind of spikes tend to flatten out.

Print is being hammered. Adult hardback is down 23.4% from the same period in 2010. Adult trade paperback is down 17.9%. Adult mass-market paperback is down 30.1%. Children’s/YA hardback is down 6.3%. Children’s YA/Paperback is down 15.1%.

The only category showing growth in this time-frame – aside from religious books and audiobooks – is e-books, which grew a stunning 160.1%.

For the first five months of 2011, e-books are the #2 selling format (ahead of hardback and mass market paperback, but a little off trade paperback).

The AAP figures should always come with a few caveats. They only track the sales of a limited amount of publishers – usually the larger ones. They don’t include most smaller, independent publishers, e-publishers, or any self-publishers.

However, the trends are clear. The phenomenal growth of e-books shows no signs of abating. And print can’t seem to find the bottom. Since April, Amazon has been selling more e-books than all print categories combined, despite the fact that their e-book market share is falling and their print market share is rising.

The remaining 399 Borders stores will close between now and September (with the loss of 10,700 jobs).

There was talk of Books-A-Million making a late play for 30 to 35 stores. And while anything that keeps stores open (and keeps workers employed) should be applauded, this won’t do much to lessen the huge negative effect the Borders liquidation will have on publishers, their authors, and offline print sales.

Mike Shatzkin estimates that Borders accounted for around 10% of the average publisher’s business. He guesses that half of this business will go to Barnes & Noble and the rest will be split between online and independents (tilted towards the former).

Those who switch to online stores such as Amazon will face wall-to-wall advertisements for the Kindle. Every time they purchase a print book, they will be shown the price difference with the e-book. Every time they wait for a delivery, they will know they could have had it instantly by downloading. And they will also be exposed – for the first time – to a range of titles that are only available in digital format.

And what about all the Borders customers that will switch to Barnes & Noble? Kris Rusch has written before about the changes taking place in her branch: increased floor space for toys and games and Nook reader displays, more titles “face out” than “spine out”, and more midlisters and former bestsellers being warehoused.

On Thursday she wrote about a copy of an internal Barnes & Noble memo she received from a staffer. It announced plans to further reduce floor space for books to make way for increased amounts of toys and games, and enlarged Nook reader display areas. It also intimated that there would be a massive return of books to publishers.

So, while all those Borders stores will close, permanently reducing the amount of books on display (and ordered from publishers), their main competitor, the one who is expected to siphon off most of the Borders customers, is planning to reduce the amount of books they display and order, and return lots of the books they already have.

One more thing. While an accurate picture of the industry is always hard to come by, this situation is only going to get worse.

As mentioned above, there are severe limitations to the AAP figures. They are useful for spotting trends, but only show us self-reported data from a small number of publishers.

Neilsen Bookscan gives us a far more comprehensive picture – covering around 60% to 70% of the print market. But they don’t measure e-books. At all.

The only companies that have an idea of up-to-date, accurate, and comprehensive e-book numbers are the retailers themselves – Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple etc. But they only know their own figures, and they aren’t obliged (or inclined) to divulge them.

In addition, most publishers (and many self-publishers) also sell through their own sites. Even if all the retailers started posting numbers, they would still be incomplete.

The Book Industry Survey Group (in association with the AAP) will release a report in August (pushed back from July) which promises to be a comprehensive survey of the industry.

While this report will contain lots of interesting information, drawn from 1,100 publishers, it will only cover 2008, 2009, and 2010, and obviously won’t contain any information about self-publishers.

The market has changed in the last five months. That much is clear. But nobody really has any idea how much of the market has been captured by self-publishers (who predominantly sell e-books), and as such nobody has any idea of the actual market share of e-books.

With every step forward that e-books take, with every writer that switches to self-publishing, those already imperfect monthly AAP figures become even less representative of the industry as a whole.

I would argue that this affects publishing houses more than self-publishers. Essentially, we have gone “all in” with online and e-books. Some of us may produce print versions of some books, but would usually restrict the sale of those to online venues such as Amazon.

We don’t expend a lot of effort getting those print versions into bricks-and-mortar stores and, as such, we don’t really have to make strategic decisions about how to allocate our time and resources.

We have already placed our bets.


Martin Lake has posted the second part of an interview with me about why I wrote Let’s Get Digital and my plans for the future (first part here). And Marcin Wrona has posted a chat about writing in general. Thanks to both of them.

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.

42 Replies to “The Relentless March of E-books”

  1. The Book Industry Survey Group report is effectively redundant before it’s even released. The changes from 2010 to 2011 have been so dramatic that it cannot but be viewed as an historic snapshot of a bygone era.

    The APP figures are stunning in themselves, and when placed in the context of not incuding self-publishers and small presses the freefall is crystal.

    Yet cruising the gatekeepers’ blogs it seems ninety-nine per cent of them still have their heads in the sand, determined to carry on with the old mantra about agent rejection being an essential part of the process, and how only they can bestow validation on an author’s work.

    The only thing worse than reading them is reading the comments by star-struck wannabes who seem to still believe it.

    Sadly many of the peer review sites that once provided a genuine and useful service to wannabe writers are now in denial too. No coincidence their backing comes from the same publishers who stand most to lose as the publishing revolution unfolds.

    1. Hi Mark,

      I’ll be very interested to see what level of year-on-year growth that e-books will be able to maintain once we start getting into October – when things really started to take off last year. With bookstore closures, falling e-book prices, increased digital selection, and all those shiny new e-reader models that will come out from the major players, there will be lots of new entrants into the market. Nobody can put a figure on how many, but Amazon seem to be manufacturing LOTS of devices – numbers comparable to last year.

      The sniping continues from certain quarters, but they are becoming increasingly irrelevant as change passes them by.


  2. eReaders are changing the industry the same way iPods changed music (though this time Apple is struggling to keep up rather than leading the charge). The pace will continue to accelerate because the shift to eBooks causes changes in the stores that push customers even more to buy online. I see the same thing happening here in Calgary. The Chapters/Indigo stores have huge sections set aside for general merchandise and every time I walk in, I see staff setting up yet another small 4 way merchandiser with coffee mugs or Kobo accessories.
    I think this is only partly due to eBook pressure. General merchandise is high margin, especially compared to books. I used to work for Loblaw and they have been pushing the square footage of GM for years now. They haven’t been losing any sales to eGroceries, but grocery profit margin is maybe a tenth of what they get from GM.
    I think the big book stores were simply following the profits and, in the process, accelerated the move to electronic books. Now they are locked in a vicious feed-back loop where they need more GM to make up for lost book sales. Either way, now that they are doing this, it hastens the day when they are nothing but a knick-knack store that also sells print versions of popular eBooks.

    1. I was thinking the other day, at what point is a bookstore no longer a bookstore?

      I can understand wanting to give more floor space over to more profitable items. I get that. But at some point you lose your focus and become something other than the prime reason why customers used to walk through your doors. If Barnes & Noble just becomes a general store where you can buy toys and games, with some books over there in the corner, why would someone shop there instead of, say, Target or Walmart?

  3. I don’t know why the Barnes & Noble information surprised me more than anything. I went to Borders this weekend and purchased one book. I paid $3 more than I could have purchased it from Amazon — that’s with the 20 percent discount. It was a local author’s Harequin book, romance were discounted 20 percent. I snagged a signed author’s copy. I’ve met the author and always planned to attend a book signing, but other things always came up.

    1. It makes sense if you look at it very narrowly: one product is outselling another so you should devote more floor space to it. However, I think customers go there because it’s a bookstore not because it’s a store which sells toys and games and happens to also sell books.

  4. I find it fascinating that this growth in ebooks with WITHOUT indie books. That’s thousands of books sold every day, just from the authors that I am in touch with personally. Which means that the ebook revolution is happening even faster than articles like these indicate. And it’s happening fast as it is.

    1. Yeah it’s astonishing. And, of course, it leaves out all those e-publishers like Ellora’s Cave, and small publishers like Ridan who are selling tens of thousands of e-books a month. Some have estimated that e-books have captured a third of the market when all players are included.

  5. It’s almost the perfect storm, poor economy to begin with so book buying would be down anyway, combined with a cheap alternative. As long as weather disasters and terrorist attacks don’t take out the world then there is nothing to stop ebooks from accelerating throughout the year.

    1. E-books or online shopping didn’t kill Borders, but they probably delivered the final blow. Borders had been chronically mismanaged for years leaving it in no fit state to deal with these challenges (as the Mike Shatzkin article I linked to conclusively shows). But even Barnes & Noble’s bricks-and-mortar stores are struggling. They are only showing growth in digital and non-print book products, so it makes sense from their narrow business perspective to pull all these books from the shelves. However, the fact remains that the #2 chain is toast, and the #1 chain is not going to pick up the slack.

      E-books will continue to grow at tremendous levels.

  6. I would be interested to know if book sales are growing overall. Most of the folks who have switched to ebooks report reading more than they used to, because of the convenience of always having an ereader close at hand, as well as the lower prices of ebooks generally.

  7. Okay, I am working on the cover art and no, I can’t afford to pay someone to do it. But. . .
    To me the surest indicator of the trend to epub is the nature of the comments on the many agency blogs and websites I visit. They have, almost to a man, taken on a defensive tone. I think they are quaking in their boots.

    I honestly feel even more people will be able to enjoy reading. I am a person that has to use the library because a thirty dollar book to read once is out of the question.

  8. Does make you question the utility of brick and mortar media stores anymore. I imagine that as e-readers become more complex, the large chain stores will become more like cellular stores, helping customers select the right device — and plan, if it comes to that (e.g. so many titles/month — in fact, I’m beginning to wonder if this is how the big publishing houses might seek to regain their gatekeeper status, by teaming up with the device-makers and offering their titles as part of monthly plans, thus pushing the independent titles to a second-tier market, or purchases outside of “the plan.”)

    In any case, you make an excellent point with:

    “Those who switch to online stores such as Amazon will face wall-to-wall advertisements for the Kindle. Every time they purchase a print book, they will be shown the price difference with the e-book. Every time they wait for a delivery, they will know they could have had it instantly by downloading. And they will also be exposed – for the first time – to a range of titles that are only available in digital format.”

    1. Mike Shatzkin has talked a lot about that possibility. He thinks the subscription model will emerge soon:

      And in fact he notes that Baen books are already doing something along those lines, and since he wrote that Angry Robot in the UK have launched a subscription.

      Its one way that the companies how own large pools of licensed content (i.e. the big publishers) could block off sections of the market. I wonder how popular it would be with readers. There would have to be a large selection, and even then I wonder what price people would be willing to pay. And how would that work out for the authors? Would the royalties amount to anything much really?

      Interesting idea. I’m sure we’ll see more attempts at it. I wouldn’t necessarily bet my life savings on it working, but I wouldn’t automatically dismiss it either. A lot would depend on how it was implemented.

      1. Thanks for that link. Makes you appreciate the convolution involved in any subscription-based service (price-point, splits, royalty structure, standards for inclusion, etc). But I agree that it will come into increasingly prevalence in one form or another– assuming, of course, that enough consumers accept it. There are the voracious readers who are sure to embrace it, and then those in the one to three titles a month club (the majority?) who will probably prefer to pay as they go. Interesting times, indeed.

  9. The notes on how bookstores are changing should scare traditionally published authors. (Nice link, FWIW). I’m not finding the link, but I recall Target’s CEO mentioning they would like to grab more Barnes and Noble customers (for much more than book buying). If B&N waters down their book brand too much, I wouldn’t want to go up against Target in the general merchandise arena.

    The risk is if Target ramps up their book section in combination with ereaders. Perhaps a cafe? Or another of the large retailers…

    I backed out the per month sales and charted:

    Ugly. In particular for MMPB. 🙁 I suspect serial fiction readers are half way through the process of defecting to ebooks.

    Borders closing puts about 10% of the print book market ‘up for grabs.’ I seriously doubt B&N, with their new space allocation, will grab even a third of those readers. Some will buy more ebooks, some will buy at Costco/Target/Walgreens/Walmart, some will buy print off Amazon, but only a small fraction will go to B&N. Customers used to browsing through 100k books are not going to find the new B&N with its mere 30k (possibly less) appealing.

    I wonder if ebooks really are at 1/3rd of the market…


    1. Ten years ago I moved from a big city to a tiny town in the boondocks. The closest Barnes & Noble is 30 miles away, and the nearby Borders just closed. So I buy online. If I want to buy a book in town, my choices are the Giant Food grocery store, Rite Aid drugstore, the library’s used bookstore, the bigger used bookstore that just closed, the Rescue Mission (they have thousands of used paperbacks for 25 cents apiece), or Walmart. I go to Walmart to buy $5.00 sweatpants, cheap socks, etc., not with books in mind, but I’ve noticed their bookshelves are growing — all bestsellers, nothing thought provoking, no classics, etc. It will be horrible if those are the choices that people are left with, grocery stores, Walmart and similar stores, and used bookstores. It will chase everybody online.

    2. I just read today that Indigo are doing the same thing in Canada:

      There is a real danger of watering down the brand. But booksellers are in a bind here. If the heavy readers are already migrating to e-books, where do they go next? They seem to think the answer is in increasing the selection of non-book products. But when Barnes & Noble starts taking down book racks to make room for scented candles, then I don’t really know what to say.

      At what point is it no longer a bookstore?

      1. ” If the heavy readers are already migrating to e-books, where do they go next?”
        That is the issue. Next is to attract ex-heavy readers back into the store (e.g., parents). But that is a losing battle. Most heavy (or ex-heavy) reading parents I know now e-read on the device they already own (smartphone).

        B&N has it tough… They never went all out on the selection. Borders, at the peak, would have 120k books versus 35k at a B&N. Now that B&N is heading south of 25k (sounds liek they’re heading south of 15k titles per store!). When does the a book buyer settle on 1k titles at Target? Walmart? Or just go ebook?

        To think, there are relatively few ‘great devices’ to read ebooks. We’re just past 25M IPads and slightly more e-ink ereaders. With 12M+ Kindles due to sell 2H2011, plenty of Nooks (tie Amazon? They’re on a roll.), IPads, and Android tablets… How will brick and mortar stores hold out?


  10. All l I know is my experience. I started going back to the library because I was tired of paying so much money for books I ended up not liking. I feel like the books I picked out had great reviews but from book critics. The one thing I liek about Amazon is that the reviews are from real readers. I usually agree with those reviews more and the sample chapter means I can really check it out. I check out maybe five samples before I purchase a book. And I most say the price has no effect on how much I like the book.
    Cara B

    1. I agree with you about the library. I stopped checking books out years ago because I would forget to bring them back on time, plus sometimes three weeks is not enough for me to get around to reading the book. Another problem with our library is the small selection — it’s an old library in a small town. But the library is free. Like you, I purchase many books that I end up not liking at all.

  11. While this is sad news for bookstores and the print industry, it’s good news for us indies. And those of us obsessed with our Kindles (or other ereaders).

    I wanted to get your input on something my crit partner shared with me. She’s got a backlist of titles that were trad pubbed a few years back which she plans to get her right back so she can put out her own ebooks. She’s also written some indie books which are doing modestly well. She’s got a new one she plans to self-pub. Last night she met with her real world crit group (all of them trad pubbed or wanting to be) and she sent me this:

    “Last night my crit group came over. One of them is with HQ and they were trying to discourage me, again, from putting (my WIP) on Kindle. My HQ friend said that the only indies who will make money from now on will be those who already have names established because the big pubs are going to take over Kindle. This is what she learned on her HQ loops, but their view is slanted, of course! Ironically, they are the ones who told me to put (my other book) on Kindle, but I guess they assumed I’d stop with the one book and save the rest for a publishing house. My friend just finished writing a great novel and when I asked her what she was going to do with it, she acted kind of insulted and said, “I’m sending to agents, of course.”

    I’m not quite sure what to make of all this.”

    What I told my crit partner was that these people had their heads in the sand! Did they have ANY idea what the publishing industry was looking like right now? And while trad pubs could do cheap prices short term, they can NEVER beat an indie on price over the long haul. And that’s where we have a chance.

    Then I sent her a PDF of your book. She’s probably going to buy the Kindle version anyway. 🙂

    1. “My friend just finished writing a great novel and when I asked her what she was going to do with it, she acted kind of insulted and said, “I’m sending to agents, of course.”

      One more quick comment and then I have to leave for work… I remember a whole slew of new agents showed up last year. They were mostly editors who lost their jobs when NY publishers downsized, so they turned into literary agents. Some of them had been editors for many, many years. Writers have to pay attention to news like this.

    2. Hey Shea,

      I’m not sure what to say about that advice. I’m sure it was well meant, but there are a number of flaws there.

      “The only indies who will make money will be those who already have their names established…”

      This just isn’t true. Most of the 33 people in my book weren’t making that much (or anything) six months ago. Take J Carson Black for example – selling close to nothing in January (and that was several months after first publishing), but has sold around 200,000 books since then (most of those in the last couple of months).

      Look at Mark Edwards & Louise Voss. They only published for the first time in February.

      And to look at it from another way, some of the people that were selling huge numbers last year aren’t selling as much this year.

      It takes a lot of work to get the top, and more again to stay there, because there are always new writers coming up.

      “…because the big pubs are going to take over Kindle.”

      How exactly? By convincing Amazon to stop listing our books? Never going to happen. By selling lots more than us and hoovering up all the readers? I think they have been trying that for some time, with mixed results.

      I think competition will increase, but so will the readership.

      1. That’s pretty much what I told her. lol I mean, my jaw hit the carpet when she told me that and I’ll I could do was shake my head. Glad I was able to offer her some sane advice and steer her your direction.

      2. ““…because the big pubs are going to take over Kindle.””

        Notice how it is always in the future they will change their strategy? This sounds like Apple in the 1990s… they were always about to change the strategy to kick Windows out of the market…

        How are publishers going to attract all the authors back to them? I see no way to pay their executive salaries and large NYC building mortgages/lease and offer authors the percentages they would require to stay loyal.

        Not to mention, without Borders and B&N cutting the number of books per store, it will soon become a common joke about publishers promising to put an authors book on a shelf…


  12. Another excellent post, Dave. I look forward with some trepidation to my print royalty statements for the last six months. I can’t say I’ve noticed a huge fall-off in my print numbers over the past few years but maybe this will be the time it happens. I’ll let you know.

    I would urge caution when looking at growth percentages. It’s very easy to get enormous percentage growth from small numbers. For example, if I sold ten books in 2009 and 26 in 2010. I would be showing year on year growth of 160%. If I sold ten billion books in 2009 and 7 billion books in 2010. I would be showing a 30% fall. I would still rather have royalties on 7 billion sales than 26. You need to make sure you are comparing like with like. A blanket 160% growth versus 30% fall does not tell the whole story. You need to know what figures you are starting from and I doubt any of us really do. Too many of the numbers are hidden from view.

    We also need to know whether this is a trend or a blip. Lest we forget, we have just lived through the biggest economic shakeup since the Great Depression. It’s not hard to understand why sales of comparatively expensive luxury items like hardbacks might be down and sales of comparatively cheap luxury items like 99 cent ebooks might be up under such circumstances. I am not saying that you are wrong. I am just saying there are potential alternative explanations for some of this.

    Having said this, I really do think indie publishing is a wonderful opportunity for writers. The great thing about ebooks is that the risk to the writer is very low and the the upside is very great. Compared to the long slow grind of trad publishing, it is very definitely a bet worth making.

    1. Hi Bill,

      I agree with your general point. I could tell you that e-books grew over 200% this Christmas in Italy, but because it’s starting from such a small base that means very little for the bigger picture.

      However, this is not the case here. There is a full breakdown of the dollar amounts here:

      As you can see, e-books were the #2 category in the first 5 months of 2011, just ahead of hardcover, and just behind trade paperback. In dollar terms, the revenue from e-books more than doubled and is not far away from being the #1 format.

      Now, there are a number of caveats here. This is only print data from 92 publishers, e-book data from 16 publishers. And depending on who those publishers are, the results could be skewed. Also, it doesn’t include any self-publishers (who are mostly digital), most small and e-publishers – any of whom are predominantly digital.

      But, going by these numbers alone, e-books are currently making up around 23% of the market. They were around 8% for the whole of 2010. They were around half that the year before. The trend is clear.

      Of course, current economic conditions could be siphoning off hardback readers (and the rest) and convincing them to go digital. But will they switch back just because the economy rebounds? I’m doubtful.

      1. Thanks for the figures, Dave. The growth in ebooks IS impressive and it’s not coming off a small base. There is a trend there. The great thing about the present business with regards to switching is that it won’t be long before we find out. Things are moving very fast.

  13. Again an interesting article. Thanks, David. One thing that the numbers suggest to me is that not only is print down and e-book readership skyrocketing but that, thanks to the social nature of the internet—Amazon, Apple, B&N—e-reading creates a platform for new markets, new readers, just as social networking has created a platform for political revolution (think Egypt). Never has changed happened so quickly. But this begs several questions, not the least of which is: were these readers here all along and the traditional structure totally failed to join reader with book? Because of price? Because of choice?

    1. There are so many questions, and having an inaccurate picture of the market doesn’t help.

      My hunch is that those who switch to e-books are reading more, and that some are readers who had “lapsed” for whatever reason. I have heard lots of anecdotal evidence to support that hunch. But there is some solid basis for it too. A lot of the growth in e-reader adoption is being driven by Boomers. Many of those would be people with some eyesight difficulties who had long been frustrated with the limited selection of large print books. On readers’ forums I always hear that people love the way they can resize the font on their Kindles.

      But price must be a factor too. Once you get over the initial cost of an e-reader (which Joe Konrath points out is only the price of 4 hardbacks), books are much cheaper. You can have them instantly. You can browse the bookstore from anywhere.

      1. “My hunch is that those who switch to e-books are reading more, and that some are readers who had “lapsed” for whatever reason. ”

        There have been articles showing ‘intense readers’ are reading 20% more due to the ability to read at convenient times (e.g., the pediatrician). I also know of more than a few ‘lapsed readers’ that were brought back by ebooks. For example, I have heard a dozen moms describe how breast feeding and reading isn’t compatible with print books. But reading on an IPad or smartphone is… (I’ll spare the details.)

        I also know of dozens of older readers re-engaged by the larger fonts too…

        Note: If you have kids later in life, one gets to know a lot of people quickly, including more than a small number of educated grandparents…

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