The Independent reports the results of a recent study by Kingston University into the empathy levels of readers and non-readers, and guess what — people who read books are nicer. They just are.
This isn’t so surprising. In my years as a real-world bookseller, it really seemed that there was a sort of invisible filter in the bookshop’s doorway, keeping all but the nicest sort of people out.
The muppet filter, as it was called, occasionally failed, letting through some grumpy sociopath. But for the most part it was effective.
We had a Muppet Rule too, which helped us cope with the occasional difficult customer. Once a year — but only once — each staff member was allowed to shout bloody murder at an unkind customer. and tell them to leave. Most of us came close from time to time, but in all those years no-one actually invoked the rule.
While just a few years ago, headlines predicted eBook supremacy and the demise of the paper book, that’s now reversed. They’re now saying the Kindle is clunky and unhip and paper books are cool and selling well as eBook sales crash. But are today’s claims any more accurate than those of 2012?
The latest round of headlines was triggered by UK Publishers’ Association figures noting a fall in consumer eBook sales of 17% in 2016, while physical book sales rose 8%. This statistic seems straightforward enough on the surface, but it pays to go deeper.
Mainstream media have long been in the habit of relying on figures from publishers’ associations, retailers’ groups and Nielsen data, but the industry has changed. While these measures are accurate, they are only accurate in terms of what they measure, and they represent far less of the industry than they once did. They are no longer a proxy for the industry.
A recent history of eBooks
Amazon’s Kindle was launched in November 2007. Barnes & Noble followed with their Nook in October 2009 and Kobo with their eReader in May 2010. Apple’s launch of the iPad in January 2010, meanwhile, introduced a non-specialist device that gave a pleasing eReading experience. US eBook sales rose 1260% between 2008 and 2010. By early 2011, US advisory group Gartner reported that industry researchers were predicting a 70% annual growth rate for eReader sales globally.
In February that year, the REDgroup, the parent company of Angus&Robertson and Borders in Australia – chains responsible for 20% of the country’s book sales – went into receivership. Retailers across the industry in Australia were noticing a downturn. After 5% growth in 2009, Australian book sales contracted slightly in 2010, then dramatically in 2011, with falls of 13% in volume and 18% in value, and significant falls continuing into 2012.
In January 2011, Amazon announced that, for the first time, it was selling more eBooks than paperbacks. According to Nielsen figures, US eBook sales went from US$69m in 2010 to US$165m in 2011, a 139% increase. They increased a further 30% in 2012 and 13% in 2013.
Nielsen figures, though, only record sales of books with ISBNs, something many independently published eBooks do not have. Despite not counting many eBooks, Nielsen still recorded sales as increasing, albeit probably at diminishing growth rates each year.
With increases in both average smartphone screen size and smartphone use, the 2014 to 2015 period marked another shift – the phone was becoming a significant reading tool. According to US Nielsen surveys, while the percentage of the eReading population reading primarily on tablets had increased from 30% in 2012 to 41% in 2015, the number of eBook buyers who used their phones to read at least some of the time increased from 24% to 54% in the same period.
Judith Curr, publisher of Atria Books, stated in 2015 that,
“The future of digital reading is on the phone. It’s going to be on the phone and it’s going to be on paper”.
EBook sales in the US, though, appeared to plateau at 2013 levels, according to Association of American Publishers figures, and then dipped early in 2015. In the UK, the Publishers’ Association reported digital sales for the year 2015 falling slightly and print sales growing minimally. “Readers take a pleasure in a physical book that does not translate well on to digital,” the Publishers’ Association stated, and declarations of “peak eBook” became commonplace. Those figures, though, do not tell the whole story.
As Simon Jenkins admitted in The Guardian last year when declaring that peak digital was at hand, the adult colouring book fad made a contribution to print sales in 2015. Unlike fiction blockbusters, sales of colouring books are almost entirely in print format.
In the case of the UK market, the £20.3 million generated by adult colouring books in 2015 matched the growth in the overall print market. Without it, the pattern of zero or negative growth seen in the preceding seven years would have continued. In the US, Nielsen reported that sales of adult colouring books surged from one million units in 2014 to 12 million in 2015. Australia was also part of the adult-colouring craze. Nielsen BookScan’s November 2015 Australian top 20 featured eight colouring books, each one of them outselling the most successful Australian novel.
Other factors were at work as well. Following the renegotiation of pricing between major American publishers and Amazon, eBook prices rose in the US Kindle Store in late 2014 and 2015. Until then, Amazon had pushed publishers to keep prices no greater than $9.99, and buyers had become conditioned to paying less than $10 for eBooks.
Publishers that increased prices above that mark subsequently recorded a fall in eBook receipts, and some identified higher prices as a factor. According to journalist Jeffery Trachtenberg, publishers viewed this pricing change as involving “some sacrifice, but they felt it was worth it to keep Amazon in check”.
The specific books published from one year to the next had an impact too. Some publishers noted that 2015 saw fewer “hot” titles. With nothing to match Frozen and the Divergent series, children’s and young-adult eBook sales fell 45.5% in 2015 in the US.
eReading growth not counted
While the Association of American Publishers’s figures are based on a survey of 1200 publishers and often seen as authoritative, the Amazon Kindle Store stocks many independently published titles and titles published by small and micro publishers not captured by the survey.
At the same time as the association was reporting a drop in overall eBook sales, Amazon, the retailer with the majority of the US eBook market, reported increases in sales in terms of both units and revenue.
And other avenues were opening up that facilitated continued growth in eReading that was not feeding into the statistics. Public libraries were lending eBooks and subscription eBook libraries were opening for business – Oyster in September 2013, Scribd the following month and Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited in July 2014.
While subscriber downloads earned an author readers and, in the case of subscription libraries, revenue, they did not count towards sales.
David Montgomery, CEO of publishing services company Publishing Technology, drew on these factors to declare last year that publishing had split into two markets, with a widening gap between them.
Self-published and micro-published authors, particularly those writing genre fiction, were pricing their eBooks much lower and claiming an increasing share of the market, particularly through Amazon, while large publishers were increasing eBook prices in a way that reduced eBook sales.
This pattern has continued, and the rhetoric that pits one format against another appears to be continuing too. At the Digital Book World conference in January 2017, Nielsen presented 2016 data from more than 30 traditional US publishers showing a fall in eBook sales from 2015 to 2016 and hardback unit sales overtaking eBooks for the first time since 2012.
Association of American Publishers (AAP) data released in February 2017 appeared to confirm the decline of eBooks, with eBook sales for the first nine months of 2016 down 18.7% on the year before.
However, at the Digital Book World conference in January, other evidence was presented that attracted less media attention.
An analysis by the Author Earnings website (an aggregator and analyser of eBook sales data) identified that, outside the world of traditional publishing, authors who were self-published, independently published or published directly by Amazon imprints, had sold more than 260 million eBooks worth more than US$850 million in the US in 2016.
Total eBook sales by Amazon – which makes up 83% of the US eBook market by volume and 80% by value – rose by 4% from early 2015 to early 2016, at the same time as eBook sales recorded by the AAP were falling.
While no direct comparison exists for the UK market – where the Publishers’ Association reported a 17% fall in consumer eBook sales from 2015 to 2016 – 42% of eBook sales in that market are by self, indie or Amazon-published authors. This added up to 40 million of the 95 million units sold in the UK in 2016 – a percentage that is growing as the eBook market share held by the larger members of the Publishers’ Association falls.
The publishing industry has changed. It is no longer solely the domain of members of publishers’ associations and books with ISBNs that allow easy tracking and accumulation of data that appears robust but tells much less of the story than it once did.
Moving beyond the ‘format wars’
It is too easy to have our attention grabbed, and sometimes our biases or hopes confirmed, by an appealing set of statistics from an authoritative source, and to misunderstand what those statistics are measuring.
While it is possible to speculate about the future trajectories of the eBook and paper book markets, many confident pundits have been wrong before, as new factors have emerged that have significantly impacted reader behaviour and sales patterns.
From the practical perspective of writers wishing to connect their work with readers, it is prudent to see both paper and eBooks as significant for any book-publishing project in the present and near future, and to develop strategies to meet both of them. It is also prudent to look beyond both platforms to another, one that had long been regarded as a peripheral player: audiobooks.
All we can be sure of is that the digital platform is still evolving. What will an eBook be 20 years from now? What will a book be?
Nick Earls will be available for a live author Q&A Wednesday from 1pm to 2pm. Post your questions below.
These articles and the chatter they spawned among those who see modern things like ebooks as somehow inauthentic were triggered by a report, or ‘yearbook’, issued by the UK’s Publishers Association, and subsequent comments made by their Executive Director, Stephen Lotinga.
The buzz around these articles, and the articles themselves, reveal the prejudices of their authors and of others who yearn for the days of quills and buggies:
Ebooks are stupid.
The ebook fad is over, thank God.
People can only take so much screen time.
It would be helpful to consider these beliefs because, if true, I’ve made a huge mistake here and need to reconsider our business plan.
Do ebooks suck?
It depends on who’s asking. Benefits and features are gained and lost with every technical innovation. If the smell of old paper is important to you, then maybe.
Along with certain efficiencies, the advent of the motor car brought issues of noise and safety. But also, your car can’t be your friend like a horse can. Nor can you eat it when it outlives its usefulness. And, after more than a century, cars still don’t have that cosy horsey smell. But in the end, after a generation or so, the car won.
Cocozza and Runcie are mostly bagging ebooks because of those things they’ll miss when people don’t read print any more. ‘There’s no romance’; ‘Books do furnish a room’; ‘An ebook isn’t a friend’. Frankly I sympathise here. (My bedside table is stacked with printed books with bus tickets and things acting as bookmarks.) But not to the point where I think this whining actually makes much sense.
It’s a ledger. On the left, the benefits; on the right, disadvantages. And then it’s a personal choice.
Here’s a list that opens Cocozza’s piece:
Cocozza’s list is a good one. It amounts to a challenge to us, the ebook people, to improve the experience of reading ebooks.
Runcie’s list of 10 sucky things about ebooks is more problematic. It’s hard to respond to criticisms like, ‘Ebooks are no good in the bath’, ‘Instant gratification is overrated’ or ‘Bookshops are wonderful places’.
This flurry of anti-ebook sentiment is really a claim that it is these perceived deficiencies of ebooks that caused the recent decline in consumer ebook sales. That decline provides comfort and vindication to those who hated ebooks anyway; who will always hate them for silly, nostalgic reasons.
The decline has more to do with market saturation and technical deficiency than screen fatigue. The consumer ebook market will inevitably find a stable level and resume steady growth, for many reasons. But that growth can and will be accelerated by improving the user’s experience.
In the end, even though I doubt we’ll get around to making ebooks smell like binding glue, ebooks will win; for the reasons I’ve gone into previously.
Is the ebook fad over?
Pfft. Hardly. You wish.
Two things: Last year’s decline in sales has been exaggerated in the press; and there’s a good reason why ebook adoption is taking a breather right now.
Look at the headline to Sweney’s piece: UK ebook sales plunge 17%. Actually, no. As he cites elsewhere in the report, overall ebook sales were down by 3%. That 17% figure related to an important subset of overall sales, namely consumer books — fiction, popular biography, self-help and so on. In fact, the remainder of the ebook market, including scholarly, scientific, professional and educational titles, continued growing.
There’s a kind of logic to this. Scholarly, scientific, professional and educational titles are naturally at home on a desktop. But for leisure reading, it’s a bigger, more fundamental shift for the reader.
So, really, the news here is that consumer book sales have dipped.
That isn’t really news because I and others predicted there would be an exhaustion gap following years of stupendous, saturation marketing of the Kindle platform.
There had to come a time when all those uncles and grannies who’d been given gadgets by well-meaning friends would quietly tuck them away and return to printed books.
But underneath the drooping consumer ebook trend-line there’s a steadily rising core of real ebook people who have embraced digital reading for the right reasons, for their own reasons. This cohort is growing. I know this because I’m at the coal face. We’re engaging with our customers, new and old, all day, every day.
So, here’s a stat that was mentioned in the PA report but was largely passed over:
After just 10 years, digital sales now account for 35% of total book sales revenue
This simple fact amounts to a revolution.
The ‘screen fatigue’ hypothesis
The PA’s Stephen Lotinga cites ‘screen fatigue’ as one reason for the decline in consumer ebook sales. This term, sometimes called digital fatigue, has various meanings and a tenuous connection with lived experience. It might relate to eye strain, or just a general sense that you’re spending too much time looking at screens of various kinds.
Last June, Publishers Weekly suggested that screen fatigue might be behind the decline in consumer ebook sales, citing a report by the Codex Group which showed that younger readers were drifting back to paper faster than older readers.
It’s a risky business taking consumers’ statements of intent at face value. When directly asked, they might say that they pine for the fjords and meadows and yearn to be unshackled from their screens. But look at them. Just look. In cafes, cars and emergency wards, on footpaths, boats and massage tables they’re all looking at their phones. And smiling.
Don’t talk to me about screen fatigue.
In a thoughtful analysis of the same Codex report Jonathon Sturgeon argues that the decline has more to do with technical deficiency that screen fatigue, and I am inclined to agree.
The consumer ebook market will inevitably find a stable level and resume steady growth, for many reasons. But that growth can and will be accelerated by improving the user’s experience.
Let’s face it. E-Paper isn’t black-and-white — it’s grey on grey. It just is. Flipping through a printed book to find something is just easier/better/nicer than sliding your finger back and forth along a tiny status bar.
The frustrations expressed by Runcie and Cocozza are real. There’s still no end to little irritations in reading ebooks but, with time and focus and resources, they will be mitigated. And ultimately, through incremental improvements, reading ebooks will be better than reading printed books in every way. Apart, perhaps, from the smell of horse glue.
Google Book Search has been around since 2004. In a helpful analysis published today on TeleRead, Chris Meadows sets out to debunk some common misconceptions about Google’s revolutionary attempt to scan the world’s orphaned books.
Almost since its launch in 2004, Google’s “library initiative” created waves. It was a plan to mass-scan millions of out-of-print books for whom no rights-owner could be found. These “orphaned” titles are not only out of print, but no-one knows who owns the copyright to them. For the most part they are stored in libraries, subject to the disasters, rationalisations and disintegrations of time.
As a bookseller, I always thought there’s one good reason why books go out of print — nobody much wants them. Or, rather, there’s not enough demand to warrant the costs and risks involved in a re-print. By that logic, the worth or usefulness of the output from this massive enterprise has to be quite thin.
But as a humanist, the project was incredibly exciting. Here is one of the world’s biggest companies using some serious loose change to preserve that body of work that never made it to classic status. There was probably a strategic, or directly commercial, rationale but the simple outcome was that a stupendously long, narrow-gauge tail of human knowledge and experience will some day be mined by scholars and the idly curious everywhere.
Read Chris’ article to learn more about Google Books.
Stephen Cole, artisanal ebook vendor, is bent over a cluttered bench, deep in thought. He is putting the finishing touches to the fourth ebook to be produced by his workshop in as many days.
“Output is really ramping up,” he says, wiping work-rough hands on his leather apron. “Mind you, it’s not about the volume. At eBooks.com it’s all about hand-crafted quality.”
Cole and his small team of creatives formed the ebook co-operative in a tin shed in the Outer Hebrides in 2000, with the aim of bringing thoughtful, artisanal values back to book publishing. “We saw the advent of the web as a tremendous opportunity to go against the trend, against automation which is ruining the quality of life.
“People really want hand-built ebooks, made from ethically sourced, sustainable, locally grown materials. Our ebooks are made with 100% organic, gluten free components.
“They said we were crazy but I just had this feeling… ” he trails off, his attention caught by a stray pixel under his colleague, Benedict Noel’s, lathe. Bends down and carefully lifts it on a fingertip to his eye. “So there you are,” he murmurs and immediately inserts it into the current project.
“Benedict, this baby’s finished — ready to upload.”
It’s this kind of attention to minute detail that sets eBooks.com apart from its Gargantuan competitors. Every ebook produced in this studio is unique.
The appeal of Cole’s bespoke publishing reaches far beyond the immediate neighborhood. They recently had an order from a Sami herdsman in Lapland, who urgently needed a text on smoking paleo reindeer flesh with avocado. The eBooks.com atelier worked round the clock and delivered the ebook in just 23 hours.
“It’s that kind of one-on-one relationship that makes it all worthwhile,” sighs Cole, who left a high-powered career in private equity to take up ebooks.
Cole’s team makes a point of visiting their suppliers in the far corners of the developing world. Just this month they conducted site visits in Frankfurt, London and Paris.
eBooks.com is one of a growing number of pop-up artisanal vendors popping up in unexpected places, such as the internet. “It’s important to pop up,” says Cole, “instead of, you know, staying there.”
Jason Kottke just highlighted this brilliant map that traces the home towns of everyone mentioned in Homer’s Iliad; effectively a Litinerary of Homer’s Greece.
So here’s your chance to do the ultimate Homeric pilgrimage. Forget the Odyssey and it’s totally overdone homages. Get your walking boots on and get back to the roots of this 3,100 year-old story and the distant, deep heart of the western literary tradition.
A recent report from the Association of American Publishers signalled that the apparently inexorable growth in ebook sales has stalled. Having captured 24 per cent of the book market, the digital juggernaut ran out of puff and stopped. To the relief of booksellers and bibliophiles everywhere, it looks as if ebooks are going to take their place as just another format, alongside audio-books, leaving plenty of room for printed books.
Almost from the moment ebook sales took off, the format recorded triple-digit annual growth rates in the United States. But last year, growth slowed to just 45 per cent. And just this month [Nov 2013], it was reported that ebook sales in June were similar to sales for the same period in 2012: Looking very much like an abrupt halt.
Sales of ebook reader devices are declining. And there is evidence that some early adopters are putting their Kindle in the bottom drawer and returning to print.
For those of us who have enjoyed a lifetime of visual, tactile and olfactory pleasure from the printed page, any sign that printed books are going to survive this digital tsunami is welcome. But these trends and headlines bear some scrutiny.
There will always be a market for printed books, just as there is still a market for vinyl records and fountain pens
Bullied onto the bandwagon
First, what caused this slowdown in ebook adoption? The short answer is that the market for ebooks — the present-day market — is saturated.
It should have been clear to us from the outset that there is a limit to the number of people who would actually want an ebook. For now, the “natural” market for ebooks includes a lot of early-adopter enthusiasts, extreme users (who read a book or two per week), travellers, professionals and scholars. It is likely that these natural users will continue to prefer digital, for obvious reasons.
But there is another group of users who could be described as normal people who were bullied into getting onto the ebook bandwagon by friends, family and the media. There are countless thousands of Kindles, Nooks and Kobos in the hands of grandmothers and uncles who received them as well-meaning gifts. Millions of us succumbed to brute force marketing campaigns by booksellers with everything to lose. Having tried the ebook experience, some are now drifting back to print. The novelty just wore off.
Many of us are buying both print and digital. If you see an interesting book in your local bookshop, you buy it. If you search for a book online, you download it. It is not a zero sum game, but it goes some way to explaining the slowdown in ebook market growth.
Better than paper
Notwithstanding this current hiatus, there are three key drivers that determine the destiny of any market: Innovation, price and demography. What happens next with ebooks will be a function of these three things.
By “innovation”, I don’t mean “enhanced ebooks”. A lot of heat is being generated these days about adding cool things to books to make them more appealing. Video and audio are tops. Links to external resources, functional mathematical formulae, in-book collaboration … There is probably value in all that, but the more of it there is, the less clear it is that the object you are enhancing is still a book.
The innovation I look forward to is not so much about added functionality as about elegant simplicity. Today’s ebooks are still a slightly awkward simulacrum of a print book. You cannot quickly flip through an ebook, back and forth, the way you can with paper. Even turning pages, after all the practice I have had, is still a bit clumsy.
Writing margin notes requires a keyboard of some kind. The list is long. But with time, and through the incremental efforts of thousands of designers and developers, all these things will resolve.
There will come a time, quietly, when the experience of reading and managing your ebooks will actually surpass that of paper.
The second driver of ebook adoption is demographic. While the natural market for ebooks sits at about 24 per cent of the total book market today, the relentless march of generations will have its way.
My children and their friends already get 85 per cent of their news and information online. My grandchildren are digital natives. There is no doubt that, by the time they enter consumer mainstream, they will prefer digital over paper. And that time is not far off.
Price: the point of collapse
Finally, price. The low-price channel always wins.
The massive downward price pressure in recent years has been a boon for consumers. More importantly, all that pressure simply accelerated a process that was inevitable.
It is true that the capital costs incurred by publishers and booksellers in re-tooling for the digital age are considerable. But, having built the infrastructure, the unit cost of production per ebook sold is tumbling, and ebooks have the capacity to just keep getting cheaper in coming years. Consumer expectations and the natural competition between publishers will continue to drive ebook prices lower.
The widening price gap between ebook and print editions, combined with improved usability and a generational growth in demand for digital books, will precipitate a moment of collapse for printed books. Improvements in book production and distribution services may delay things, but there will come a point where ever-smaller print runs will push the unit price of printed books upwards, beyond tolerance. Something will break.
It will no longer be economic for publishers to ship books or for booksellers to pay rent. When it happens it will happen quickly — over a year or two.
There will always be a market for printed books, just as there is still a market for vinyl records and fountain pens. But the real future, a golden future, for books and reading is digital. All things considered, I expect the print book market to collapse on Sept 12, 2020.
[This is a slightly edited version of a presentation to the International Summit of the Book, Singapore, August 2013.]
Having nothing better to do on a lazy weekend sometime in 1969, the esteemed French novelist Georges Perec(1936-82) wrote an entire 300-page book without using the letter “e”. Why? you ask. Well presumably it’s one of those “Because it was there” things. Or, more precisely, wasn’t there.
Still, at a time when many other French intellectuals were at the barricades, young Georges was bending his formidable intellect to the project of avoiding Es. One can’t help but wonder what effect this project had on his subsequent output. Did Georges resist the popular vowel ever after?
We all dream of a creative, stimulating job in pleasant surroundings. Working with nice people, maybe? How about a “commute” that includes rolling green countryside and quaint villages? Well it looks like some people get to live that life.
Far from the chaos of the world they serve, Abi and Katie get up in the morning and trundle from Bedford to the scenic English village of Oakley to put in a hard day’s slog of drinking tea and being creative.
From the vantage point of eBooks.com’s corporate head office here on the edge of the Nullarbor Plain in Western Australia, that seems like a pretty good gig.
eBooks.com is the longest-established ebookstore on the web. We offer a vast selection of titles across thousands of categories, ranging from popular fiction to academic and professional books. You can read our ebooks on most tablets and smartphones.