Friday, May 27, 2011

ebook vs print book sales

Some of the most depressing sessions I attended at BEA (Book Expo America) this week were the ones where people tried to convince each other that print is not dead. I don't think it is dead but the way, but there is no doubt it is in decline. The people on the panels however seemed to try to convince me of print's relevance in a way that just made the picture sound even more bleak. They touted "specialty books" like those contained in a potato chip bag, or a cookbook that is encased in Lucite and sells for $600+. Some tried to convince me that books were the "best" format of the printed word as they last for hundreds of years, need no power source, can be read during take off and landing, and can be read in direct sunlight.

I love printed books, but I also love having a hundred on my device at one time. The next time I move, I'll be grateful that I won't have several hundred more books to pack and unpack. But most importantly I love the fact that when I finish one great book and want another that I can just click a button and not have to rely on the UPS man or getting in my car to drive to the bookstore.

For those who have not kept up on "the facts" about the decline here is some recent data:
  • July 2010 Amazon sold more kindle books than hardcovers
  • January 2011 Amazon sold more kindle books than paperbacks
  • May 2011 Amazon sold more kindle books than paperback and hardcover combined
  • Year end 2010 AAP numbers had ebook sales at 8.3% of total trade sales
  • February 2011 AAP numbers had ebook sales at 29.5% of total trade sale - higher than any other category (hardcover, mass market, trade paperback)
I was really looking forward to hard and fast numbers from BEA and the report I was looking most forward to was one done by BISG (Book Industry Study Group) and AAP (Association of American Publishers) that took data from 1,100 publishers over a two year period.

Alas, the report will not be published until JULY!! There was good news from the preliminary data however, it seems that publishing has found the bottom (2008) and is starting to climb up out of it (last 2 years have shown growth).

Michael's agent asked me at lunch how long before ebooks outsell all print. She was hoping for five years I said two -- though I think I'll be wrong and it could be as soon as 14 months. We'll see and keep you posted.


crw said...

Interesting post. Those Luddites at the BEA need to get out of their offices more and mix with society. I think your estimate of two years for ebooks outselling all print is about right. It will be immediately after this Christmas 2011/12 or next Christmas 2012/13 because that will be when huge numbers of ereaders are sold. And if Amazon bring out a colour all singing Kindle with Android app capability it will be about 2 - 3 months after the release of that.

Unknown said...

Great thoughts as always, Robin. I've noticed an uptick in the number of people digging their heals in around the blog world in regards to print books sticking around. I kind of feel like it's a last-ditch point of resistance. (Especially when I read what you wrote about books in potato chip bags ... seriously?)

I'm with you; I love print books but--if I'm being honest--only for nostalgia. Electronic books are far superior in convenience, cost (in most cases) and functionality. The only legit argument that can be made for print books is based on aesthetics. Eventually the cost will outweigh the charm.

Print books will be around forever, but having them will be purely for collectors and people with the money to burn. To carry on the prognosticating, I'd guess the average hardback book will set you back $40-$50 minimum within 2-4 years and they'll only be available as POD orders. When the prices rise to that level, the average consumer won't be purchasing them, so Walmart, etc. won't carry them any longer.

People will wonder what will come of literature when the Electron-alypse happens (i.e. we somehow lose all of our digital 'stuff'), but that's what museums and libraries are for.


Robert Burton Robinson said...

Things are changing so fast that my head is spinning, Robin. I began to put my books in the Kindle store in late 2009. At first, sales were so low that it hardly seemed worth the trouble. But then in late 2010, things began to warm up.

Bottom line: in December 2010 I sold 1,600 Kindle books. This month, I have already sold 16,000. It helps when you have a book ranked in the 50's. ;)

David M. Brown said...

Ebooks have advantages over printed books and are gaining ground rapidly. However, although I have several hundred books on my Kindle and appreciate the portability and other conveniences, which will only become greater as technology improves, I don't agree with one of the commenters that the virtues of print book have become, in contrast, purely aesthetic. Perhaps the more accessible aspects of a printed volume will eventually be fully emulated by electronic means, but we're not there yet. I can't flip back and forth between widely separated pages of a novel or reference book as easily in an ebook as I can in a printed book, for example.

Unknown said...

My Nook allows me to bookmark any page I want and all-but instantly jump to that page with a tap. It's actually easier than flipping back and forth between the pages of a paper book.

This brings up an interesting point. I read an article the other day from someone saying that digital would never win out over paper in academia because you just couldn't replicate having journals, etc. spread out over a work surface with digital. I couldn't believe the guy was for real. First, 99.9% of all journal articles are electronic, and have been for years. Second, some eReaders (like the iPad) already make it super easy to jump from doc-to-doc, and you don't need a library-sized desk to do it. Digital reading was a hit in academics long before it ever became relevant to the general public.

The point it makes, I think, is that a lot of the things being said about this topic are really being said baselessly--ON BOTH SIDES of the debate. Much of what I read is clearly being said by folks with a strong position; they either hate eReaders and/or the idea of the freedom of digital publishing and distribution, or they feel slighted by traditional publishing and view paper books as some kind of vehicle of oppression.

I can probably be accused of it myself, but I do try to base my 'prognostications' off of data and trending (like sales figures, etc.), and always try to label it as 'my best guess' and not as fact. I'm for sure in favor of the eRevolution, but mostly I'm in favor of authors and reading (of any kind).

If one thing is certain it's that nothing is.


wannabuy said...


I agree with you print will survive.

It is all going to happen quick. Either by February 2012 or February 2013 (as Christopher Wills noted in different words in the 1st post).

It isn't just the devices (which will pull readers to ebooks), but it is (sadly) about bookstore economics.

As bookstores close, I see previous 'print until I'm dead' customers buying ereaders. I also see parents of college kids insisting on lower cost textbooks... IMHO, over the next year to two years textbooks will really change the ebook/ereader market.


Robin Sullivan said...

@Robert - your experience completely mirrors what so many others also saw (Michael included) but the real story for me was it wasn't just Konrath and Hocking that took off in laste 2010 it was you, Michael, H.P. Mallory, David Dalglish, and many many more. Congrats on the great sales - I know from first hand experience how could it feels. I took out Nathan and Marshall yesterday for dinner (we are all at Balticon) and it was great congratulating them on selling thousands of books.

Unknown said...

I think the position from the famous Konrath and Barry conversation makes sense:

We have electricity, yet candles still sell.

I'm not an ereader owner, I have increasingly read more book on my netbook though. I buy through B&N because Nook works on Linux, Kindle doesn't. I'm probably buying an ereader for christmas, it will probably be a Kindle (if color comes out) only because then I can see my books in both formats.

But I already am more selective in which books I buy in print. Two reasons: 1- Bookstores carry inventory for like a hot minute, and the title is gone. But, the helpful clerk can order it for you online :) (I can do that, thanks though). 2- Limited shelf space. Very few books get the reread anymore. Only books I buy in paper copy are usually the bargain tables. The hot bestsellers I buy ebook because if I want it, I want it right now! :)

One thing printed will always have over ereaders? reading in tub. But I wager to guess eventually a waterproof ereader will come out...

Kallypso Masters said...

I not only don't plan to publish in print (unless there's a huge demand for it, which I doubt will happen), but I also plan to go the indie route for publishing. Hope I have even a fraction of the success this guy is having! (He has 9 thrillers on Amazon and made $126,000--IN APRIL!) Long live the e-book!

Kallypso Masters
Facebook and Twitter

Robin Sullivan said...

@Elizabeth - you are not alone - and you are right about the bookstores having a short shelf life. I went to a HUGE bookstore (PowerPlant in Baltimore Harbour) recently and was amazed that many authors I know with recent releases had ZERO books on the self and the few that had books only had 1 title of 4 - OUCH! How can you do much in such an environment?

Robin Sullivan said...

@Kally - I put both John Locke and Amanda Hocking in the outlier category (like Meyer and Rowlings) so not worth shooting at. But...the mid-list indie author (Marshall Thomas, Michael Sullivan, Nathan Lowell, B. V. Larson, David Dalglish, David McAfee, and on and on are doing just fine with their five figure per month incomes. There is plenty of room to make a good living at this level.

Kallypso Masters said...

@Robin Sullivan--if you only knew how low the bar was set for me to surpass what I made at my evil day job. lol. I don't need a John Locke paycheck to be ecstatic and wildly successful at this venture. I'm thinking before a year is up (my test period for the venture), I'll make in a quarter what I used to work all year to make. Of course, that's after I get a few titles up simultaneously. But my first two will go up in August. Then away we go!

Kallypso Masters
Facebook and Twitter

Kate said...

And boy will I be so excited to see that day come. I feel like I inadvertently joined an expedition when I published my first ebook in Dec. This journey has been amazing, fascinating and ever-changing. And that's in 6 mths!

Holy Cow. Can't wait to see what's next.

Lisa Nowak said...

Print has its place, and many times I prefer it, such as when I'm using a non-fiction book for reference. However, there's something to be said about being able to download books onto your phone so you're never without reading material. The market will show that there's room for both print and ebooks.

Robin Sullivan said...

The immediate gratification of download is a powerful thing. So much so that Kindle is using this in their most recent ads.

I saw one this weekend where a girls is "off to the bookstore to get a book that came out today". She passes a boy standing with a kindle who downloads it in 60-secs. She realizes it was the book she was going to get and starts reading. When the boy asks "Hey weren't you going to the bookstore?" She "shushes" him and continues to read.

Robin Sullivan said...

@Kally - Good luck - be sure and come back and tell us about it.


Kallypso Masters said...

So far, it's been a success! I have sold 6,000 books since mid August (far above my expectations) and book 3 comes out in a few weeks. Still a long way to go to make a steady living, but I haven't published a book since 9/30 and my November sales exceeded my October ones, so word of mouth is spreading. Just got the nicest fan letter from a reader in Turkey. I just love the indie e-book revolution and am so glad that I chose this over traditional publishing. No regrets (and it looks like I don't have to go job hunting in May or June!) That's the best part!


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