The E-book Revolution – What It Means To Authors & Sales
Today’s guest poster is the fiercely intelligent Hugh McGuire, who has been involved in the creation of tools and software aiding the E-book Revolution since 2009. It’s all well and good to look at the numbers of Hugh Howey’s data scrape, or the predictions of traditional publishing sales data analysts, but if you don’t look at them in the context of where the digital and ebook publishing phenomena has come from, and how it has evolved, you cannot make informed decisions as an indie author on trends and the best strategies for reaching the biggest audience. This post takes a look at this history, and 5 years worth of trends with some very interesting insights into the strategies indie authors should be considering to become the most successful they can be.
UPDATE: The giveaway is now over, thanks to everyone for participating! Today’s giveaway has two winners! Today we’ll be giving away two free upgrades for Pressbooks valued at $100 each. Hugh is founder and creator of a tool for authors called PressBooks, which authors can use very simply not only to create epub and mobi ebook formats but to also create the interior PDF for a print book version of your book! The tool, while free to use, has ads for Pressbooks in it (which I normally keep in) that you can pay to remove, that’s what these free upgrades are for! To see how easy PressBooks is to use see the video at the bottom of this post! I will be picking the winner of today’s prize from the comments below. Get your comments in before 3pm Friday 11th of April (Australian Eastern Standard time) which is also 10pm Thursday night across the pond (US Pacific) to win!
I got seriously involved in the ebook revolution in the winter of 2009. The Kindle was a big clunky device only a couple of years old, Apple’s iPad hadn’t been released yet, and a little company called Stanza had built a beautiful ebook reader for the iPhone. Ebook sales globally were maybe 1.5% of the market, a tiny spec and not very meaningful, but starting to grow. There was an awful lot of opinion about what “publishing” should do, a boatload of uncertainty, and a wide-open vista mixed with an equal measure of enthusiasm and terror. One thing seemed sure though: ebooks would mean that self-publishing would take off, and traditional publishing would have to adapt or face the consequences.
The dust settles, sort of!
Five years later, things have settled down. The future isn’t exactly clear, but the present is pretty settled, and two things have happened, one expected, the other not so much.
Expected and unexpected developments
The expected development is: Self-publishing has matured to become mainstream and an important part of the publishing landscape. The unexpected development is: growth in ebooks sales has slowed significantly in the past couple of years. We quickly went from 1.5% of the market up to the 20% range, but numbers suggest ebook growth is getting sluggish, and levelling off at about 20-25% of the trade publishing market in the USA (Notes: The “trade” market is regular books that regular people buy; and the US is a few years ahead compared with other countries, but we can expect similar numbers elsewhere).
The self-publishing boom
Back in 2009, there was still a real stigma attached to self-publishing. That stigma is gone in most categories (literary fiction seems to be one holdout). We consistently see self-published books in the best-seller lists, especially on the Kindle, and the list of kinds of books getting self-published is getting longer all the time. Genre fiction (Horror, Mystery, Romance, SciFi) has a robust self-publishing ecosystem. Self-published books live alongside, and often outsell, traditionally published books, without readers noticing. On the nonfiction side, consultants and domain experts are publishing more and more all the time. “A book,” as one successful self-published writer I know says, “is just a big business card for my consulting business.”
Self-publishing as publishing powerhouse
Supremely successful self-publisher Hugh Howey released a famous and controversial analysis of the Kindle sales figures, suggesting that self-publishing is more important than anyone thought, and is in fact driving the ebook market. You should read Howley’s analysis with a grain of salt: I heard one author quip that “using Howley’s methods, I calculated that my book should have made about $25,000 last year. That overstates my sales by about $24,500.” But whether or not Howley’s statistics are off, we know that self-publishing is an important part of the publishing landscape now. It cannot be ignored, and no one bothers with the stigma any more. That was expected, but the publishing world had a surprise in store.
The great ebook slowdown of 2013
One thing those of us in the digital side of the business didn’t expect (I certainly didn’t) was the tapering off in ebook growth. Those first few years after 2009 saw explosive growth in ebook sales, a I expected growth to power up: 5%, 10%, 20%, 50% of the market. In the first few years after I started watching the industry closely, this looked like a sure thing. In the US trade market we saw grow from almost nothing in 2008, surging 131% in 2009; 252% in 2010; 159% in 2011. Then things started to slow: 28% in 2012; and shockingly only 5% in 2013 (see: The flattening of e-book sales). Sure, 5% growth isn’t nothing, but it ain’t 252%.
A caveat about numbers
As with all numbers from the obscure world of publishing, there are some caveats. Hugh Howley had to scrape data from Amazon’s web pages to extrapolate his numbers with all sorts of potential errors introduced. And the drop in ebook sales noted above are reported by the Association of American Publishers, meaning that self-publishing titles are not included. My guess is that self-publishing continues to see a much more robust growth in ebooks. Still, talking to the small and independent publishers who make up a big part of our users at PressBooks, the numbers ring true: ebook sales have flattened, and print remains a critical part of their business, with 80% or more of their sales coming from good old fashioned paper and ink.
Here is what is revolutionary about ebooks: it is “easy” (or easy enough, with the right tools and a bit of knowledge) for anyone to produce an ebook, and get it into sales channels: Kindle Direct Publishing gives anyone access to the Amazon store, and there is Kobo Writing Life, and others. But what about print?
Yeah, what about print?
In the old days, print was pretty complicated: you needed to get your books designed and typeset; you’d send your files to a printer, print up a few hundred or few thousand copies, and then convince book stores to stock them. New(ish) technologies change all of this.
Online sales & print-on-demand
While the world of ebooks is a pretty clear case for self-publishers and small publishers, print-on-demand and online book stores make the same revolution possible for print as well. And I would argue that, given the numbers above, anyone looking at publishing seriously should consider print. Print-on-demand is technology (it’s been around for more than a decade, but getting better all the time) that allows printing of one-off books at reasonable prices. Coupled with online stores like Amazon.com and others, this makes getting into print “easy” (more caveats below!). Readers who buy the book don’t know or care that your title is print-on-demand. They just want to read it. Amazon’s Createspace lets you sell your print-on-demand title in the Amazon store; Ingram Spark gets your ebook and print book into just about every online store in the universe.
The catch. And a solution
While millions have figured out how to produce an ebook (using a tool like PressBooks, conversion service, of just getting a passable conversion of a Word file submitted to Amazon, or Smashwords), getting print books produced has always been a bit more complicated — typically requiring someone with knowledge of the specialized software, InDesign. But we’ve always felt that print would remain important for publishing, which is why we built PressBooks to make it just as easy to produce a print-ready PDF as it is to make an ebook. In fact, it’s just another button.
Since the heady days of 2009, we have seen some amazing things happen in the book publishing world. Some of it has been faster than anyone predicted, and other parts of the business have barely changed at all. But the task of the publisher (whether self-, traditional, or new and experimental) remains the same: find new and better ways to connect readers with books they want to read. Ebooks reshaped the landscape, making the process of connecting reader to book easier than ever. But readers seem to be voting with their wallets and eyeballs, and while pixels are now a critical part of publishing, paper and ink remain the bulk of the business. Successful publishers of all kinds need to take this into account.
See Emily’s Tour of PressBooks below!
What are your future strategies going forward? What are your observations of digital publishing over the last five years? Leave a comment below to win one of two upgrades for Pressbooks!
Hugh McGuire is the founder PressBooks, a simple book production tool that makes it easy to create all the beautifully-designed files you need to publish your books: PDF for print and print-on-demand, and ebooks for Kindle, Kobo, Apple and the rest.