Thursday, December 12, 2013

E-books vs. Printed Books - A look at the numbers

In an August 8, 2013 article by Neil Irwin in the Washington Post, he discussed the recent trend in book sales, specifically those dealing with e-book sales. As he notes, the book sales for e-books were leveling off this year and he explains why.
It seems that he is noting what many people have been saying for some time...""We may be discovering that e-books are well suited to some types of books (like genre fiction)  but not well suited to other types (like nonfiction and literary fiction) and are well suited to certain reading situations (plane trips) but less well suited to others (lying on the couch at home). The e-book may turn out to be more a complement to the printed book, as audiobooks have long been, rather than an outright substitute."

But I do believe there is a bigger issue that we have all been missing out on. When we see articles talking about e-book sales outselling print books, or articles talking about the rising trend in e-readers and so forth, we aren't looking at the bigger picture. When we examine book sales, we need to look at the total number of books being bought, in ALL formats. Consider these ideas:

  • e-books sales account for only 20% of the sales...therefore print books are making up the other 80%
  • when we consider e-book reader sales, we are including all type of tablets but not explaining what people are doing with these devices.
  • if e-book sales are plateauing, then the odds are print books are doing the same thing.
I do think Irwin makes a great comment at the very end of his article. "what matters most is not the competition between e-books and traditional books. What matters is how much of people's total time they are willing to devote to reading, as opposed to the overabundance of other entertainment options that the world offers." In other words, we need to get people to return to reading instead of all of these other vices that are out there.

If writers are finding it harder and harder to sell books and make a business out of this, regardless of the format they are working in (e-book or print) then we need to find a way to get the readership back up. In the end, this is a simple issue of supply and demand. Our supply (the authors and books) are up but the demand (the readers) is down. This means we need to make some changes.

I would argue several different things might help:

  • Authors need to focus more on the quality of the book and not the sales. As an agent, I have honestly seen a decrease in the number of books that are really strong. Most read like templates or lack that depth necessary to suck a reader in.
  • The supply needs to balance. We have flooded the market with so many books out there with the rise of self-publishing and e-publishing avenues (and this includes the traditional publishers adding into the mix their own "digital first" lines) that it is becoming difficult to wade through everything. Readers do not have the patience to go digging for a book.
  • We have to encourage more "book stores." If you ask around, readers (mostly those who write) are constantly moaning about the loss of book stores. This is where they A) stumbled across new authors; and B) often bought more books than planned when they went into the story. Maybe the problem was that stores had gotten too big. In anthropology we call this gigantism, which, in the case of dinosaurs is a theory for their extinction. They became too big to survive.
  • As writers, we have to promote reading. 
  • Schools need to promote reading for reading. Yes, we all hated reading time when we were in school, but when we were given the chance to pick what we want, and not forced to read for a grade only, we loved it.
Look, reading is not going to go away. It is on a huge decline right now, but it will not disappear. I do believe those of us in publishing have the chance to really make a proactive move here to help build the industry. We have the control to fix this. The question is, are we willing to do so?

1 comment:

  1. I'm a teacher. I have a theory that like other skills or habits--learning a language, starting to smoke--there is a certain age where adoption is likely to happen and more likely to stick. Unfortunately, that age, I believe, is the age when pre-teens and early teens are spending hours playing video games. I would estimate that only 2 to 3 students in a class will read for pleasure on a regular basis.