People are pointing me to this article in the New York Times about eBooks sales slipping and print sales stabilizing, and are wondering what I think of it. Well:
To begin, I think it’s lovely that print sales and book stores are doing well; it was touch and go there for a while. I’m also not entirely surprised to find that many younger readers — the “digital natives” — like and often prefer physical books. That’s certainly been the case with my daughter (who now, as it happens, works at the local bookstore). She’s sucked into her phone as much as any person her age, or indeed, as much as most people alive, it seems. And yet, when she reads books, and she reads a lot of them, print is her preferred medium, and was even before the bookstore.
With that said, it’s worth noting this bit in the article:
It is also possible that a growing number of people are still buying and reading e-books, just not from traditional publishers. The declining e-book sales reported by publishers do not account for the millions of readers who have migrated to cheap and plentiful self-published e-books, which often cost less than a dollar.
Indeed, a couple of days before this particular article, my Twitter feed was alive with retweets of data showing that publishers’ share of Amazon ebooks sales had decreased while indie sales had increased; since the data had come from a source that is unabashedly pro-indie (and less-than-subtly in my opinion anti-publishing), it also came with rhetoric implying that publishers were doomed, doomed, and so on.
So a couple of things here. First, if we are talking overall book sales, I do think we’re missing a lot if we’re not bringing indie sales into the discussion. There’s a hell of a lot going on there and it’s one of the most exciting places in publishing right now, “exciting” being used in many senses of the term. But no matter how you slice it, if you’re lightly sliding over its existence, you’re not accurately describing the current publishing market.
But, second, I don’t think declining eBook sales from publishers means they’re doomed, doomed, either. This is in part because (and this seems to be a point of some confusion) there’s more to publishing than maximizing eBook sales numbers in the short term. Publishers, for example, might decide that it’s in their long-term interest to stabilize and even grow the print market, and price both their eBooks and print books in a manner that advantages the latter over the former in the short term.
Why would they do that? For a number of reasons, including the fact that Amazon is still 65% of the eBook market in the US, and publishers, as business entities, are appropriately wary of a retailer which a) clearly has monopsonist ambitions and tendencies, b) has been happy to play hardball with publishers to get its way. Investing time in strengthening alternate retail paths makes sense in that case, especially if, as the article suggests, consumers are happy to receive the book in different formats for an advantageous price. If people fundamentally don’t care if they read something in print or electronic format, as long as they get a price they like, that leaves publishers a lot of room to maneuver.
Which is not to say I think publishers are blind to the potential advantages of the digital space. Note well that publishers have not been idle addressing the digital-only market; numerous publishers now have digital-only (or “digital-first” with publish-on-demand print option) imprints, and several, including Tor, my primary fiction publisher, have started imprints devoted specifically to novellas, a format that is now emerging from a long commercial slumber thanks to digital formats. I think it’s entirely possible that publishers have as their long-term strategy imprints and initiatives that primarily address particular media, with some imprints, books and authors primarily digital-facing and some primarily print-facing, depending on where their data tells them money is to be made with each book/author/imprint/whatever.
The short version of all of the above is: I’m sure publishers are happy about print doing well, and I would be mildly surprised if publishers are too deeply concerned with the short-term dip in digital sales, especially if they are investing in positioning themselves for the long-term. Again I remind everyone that many if not most of these publishers have been around decades and have seen changes in the market as significant as the one we’re going through today. They’re tenacious bastards, publishing companies are.
While we’re on the subject of publishing and writers, people have asked me what I thought about the Author’s Guild survey that shows author incomes down substantially from what was reported in a 2009 survey, with full-time authors seeing a 30% decrease from $25k to $17.5K, and part-time authors reporting an even steeper drop. Added to that, this NPR piece noting the relatively meager sales of some of the books nominated for this year’s Man Booker prize. Between the both of them, it’s enough to make writers a little gloomy.
My first thought about the latter is to note there is not nor ever has there been a strong correlation between “literary excellence” and strong sales, nor when it comes to awards should there necessarily be. The Man Booker is a juried award, if I remember correctly, so awareness through sales isn’t much of a factor in terms of what gets onto its long and short lists. So, no, it’s not really surprising some of the finalists haven’t sold that much prior to the announcement. They’ll probably sell better now, however.
It’s also not a huge surprise that most books don’t sell that well. That, at least, is a consistent fact through time. Kameron Hurley notes the lifetime sales of the average published and self-published book here, if you want to look. The rise of self/indie publishing is kind of a wash on this, I suspect; it allows you to price a book very cheaply, but it also means the market is swamped and it’s harder to stand out. It doesn’t matter how low you price your book if no one ever sees it out there, etc.
But with respect to writer incomes dropping via the Author’s Guild survey, this is one place where I wish we had better (which is to say more comprehensive and in some way independently verifiable) reporting from indie authors, because I suspect there’s a lot of money not being reported out there, not only in terms of direct indie/self-publishing unit sales, but through other avenues like Kickstarters and Patreons, which I anecdotally see adding a non-trivial amount of income to writers’ bottom lines. I suspect these are avenues that a lot of writers who are used to particular income paths are either not aware of, or exploiting — or perhaps can’t exploit because their established audiences are used to paying in them in particular ways. I’d love to see the figures on who crowdfunds, in terms of age; my suspicion is that it skews younger.
Would this money I suspect is going missing substantially move the needle in terms of overall author incomes? I don’t know. I suspect it might, but it’s possible not as much as some people cheerleading indie/self-publishing would like to admit.
I’ve noted before that I think in general there are three kinds of authors: Dinosaurs, mammals and cockroaches, where the dinosaurs are authors tied to an existing publishing model and are threatened when it is diminished or goes away, mammals are the authors who rise to success with a new publishing model (but who then risk becoming dinosaurs at a later date), and cockroaches are the authors who survive regardless of era, because they adapt to how the market is, rather than how they want it to be. Right now, I think publishing might be top-heavy with dinosaurs, and we’re seeing that reflected in that Author’s Guild survey.
What we’re missing — or at least what I haven’t seen — is reliable data showing that the mammals — indie/self-publishing folks, in this case — are doing any better on average. If these writers are doing significantly better on average, then that would be huge. It’s worth knowing.
Update, 2:52pm: This excellent point on eBook sales from Tor editor Beth Meacham:
.@scalzi A publisher's take: ebook sales inflated as people bought up backlist releases. Now down to more realistic levels overall.
— Beth Meacham (@bethmeacham) September 23, 2015