So, how are ebooks doing, really? In recent years, we’ve heard stories – maybe even seen data – that say sales have peaked and are declining, but are they? I wanted to get behind the headlines and find out what was really going on. And it turned out to be more interesting, and more complicated, than some of us might have expected.
For ebook sales to peak, or appear to peak, first they had to surge. Ebooks dawdled for the first few years of this century while we all waited for a user-friendly ereading platform. The Kindle arrived in late 2007, and ebook sales took off, provoking a response from established publishers that amounted to around 2/3 fear and 1/3 excitement. Maybe slightly more fear. Then the iPad came along in 2010, and soon tablets were everywhere, and a great platform for reading. So, over a period of maybe four years, ereading soared.
What’s happened since?
Some technological evolutions, but no revolution. Bigger phone screens mean more phone reading, but that’s not as big a deal as Kindles and tablets. In the absence of great tech leaps forward, there haven’t been the drivers of ereading that kicked in a few years ago.
On top of that, big publishers changed their deal with Amazon on pricing ebooks. And they put their prices up. Amazon had spent years habituating ebook purchasers to a $9.99 ceiling, and prices above this proved a barrier to quite a few. Also, publishers shifted their ebook prices much closer to their paperback prices, drawing readers back to paperbacks.
But that’s far from the whole story. The ebook market was also evolving.
Those stats you see on falling ebook sales? They’re almost all from a limited range of sources, none of which measures the ebook market as well as it measures the paper book market – Nielsen surveys, Association of American Publishers figures, other studies tracking sales by ISBN. When paper books were the market, those measures stacked up reasonably well. But they don’t for ebooks. The AAP might have 1200 members, but it’s not the ebook market, which has an uncountable number of indie publishers, self-publishers and other people bringing books to market without AAP membership or ISBNs. The Kindle Store is full of books that are ducking under the stats radar, and it’s not the only place that works that way. The quarterly updates at the Author Earnings website give a much better idea than some of the figures that are widely talked about.
The book industry is split in two: the companies the mainstream media often view as the book industry, and the epublishers who are happily doing business anyway and, overall, selling many millions of books a year. While newspaper articles often say ebook sales are falling, they’re actually still growing, if you add them all up, even if not at the spectacular rate they were in 2010-2012.
For the foreseeable future, books will come on paper and as a digital ebook file – and audiobook file – and authors need to think through at least all these formats, if not more.
In my PhD-student capacity, I’ve written way more about that here at TEXT, but it also made sense to drop in here and spell some of it out, and to say it’s clear that ebooks aren’t going away. Many of the prophets of doom may have a vested interest or have skim-read the stats. Whatever the reason, I think they’ve got it wrong. The ebook market is evolving, as it was always going to, but it remains a place where authors need to be and where readers will go to find them.
Nick Earls was the second author signed by Exciting Press, and the first who didn’t also own the company. His novella series, Wisdom Tree, has just been awarded the Adult Fiction Ebook gold medal at the Independent Publisher Book Awards. Vancouver, one of the novellas in the series is currently shortlisted in the Christina Stead Prize at the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards and also a contender for the People’s Choice Award. We’re not going to be subtle about it. Please click here and choose it, people!