Technology has become an inescapable reality in our lives. From cell phones, to eReaders, to tablets, we rarely go anywhere without our devices. This has allowed us to stay in touch and stay connected but it has also allowed us to travel more easily with our favorite books.
In recent years, there have been a number of media reports that suggest eBook purchases and readership has declined in favor of a return to physical books but, simply put, these media reports are wrong. Offering gross misrepresentations, and only covering a part of the publishing market, these stories fail to examine the bigger picture.
What the reports are saying
In the last year, media sources have been quick to proclaim the death of the eBook. They have pointed to a decrease in sales as a sign that people have abandoned the convenience of the eBook and returned to the tactile experience of a hard copy, printed, words.
These articles and talk pieces use data from the Association of American Publishers and the UK-based Publishers Association. The information from these organizations shows a rise in print sales and a slight drop in digital sales. On the surface, it looks like eBooks are being shelved in favor of physical books.
Similarly, sales of eReaders, like Kindle, Kobo and Nook, have decreased steadily since their peak in 2011. Once again, on the surface, this seems to suggest that readers are choosing physical books over the digital books.
What the numbers really mean
When you take those numbers and dig a little deeper, a different story starts to emerge. The Association of American Publishers (AAP) and the Publishers Association (PA) only include traditional publishers, and even then, they do not include all publishers. This means, the numbers presented by these organizations do not include strictly digital publishers or eBooks that are self-published. The PA’s stats, for example, fail to account for 38% of the market while the AAP only covers about half of the industry. When you do not count a large segment of the digital publishing industry, it can certainly skew the numbers.
It is important to note, that while the numbers have been misrepresented, they are not “wrong.” These traditional publishing houses, some who also release their titles in a digital format, are losing that digital revenue to independent publishers or those who publish directly to platforms like Amazon. So, as per their data, eBook revenues are dropping while their print revenues remain high.
But because digital revenue is falling for these publishers, it does not mean that people are not buying eBooks. Amazon began as a book retailer and they still continue to dominate the marketplace. After some very public battles with major publishers, Amazon has managed to keep eBook prices down which has slashed the publishers’ profit margins even though people are still buying them.
Amazon Unlimited provides readers with unlimited eBook downloads for a monthly price. This does not technically count as an eBook “purchase” even though readers are still paying money to read in a digital format. Basically, the metrics used for tracking the popularity of eBooks has not kept pace with changes in the industry.
When it comes to the decline in eReader sales, it has more to do with the advancements made in other technologies. These eReader devices have not changed much since they were first launched and users find them a little static. And with the advancements made in smartphones and tablets, there is no longer a need to purchase an item that does only one thing.
Signs of growth
Many parts of the market point to significant growth in eBook sales and readership. In 2016, 70% of adult fiction sales were digital and that number only continues to grow. This is particularly true when it comes to specific genres. Romance, mysteries and thrillers, and science fiction sell incredibly well in the digital format. Non-fiction books, like detailed guides, how-tos, and self-help books, also make up a significant portion of the digital sales.
Libraries are reporting an increasing demand for eBooks, as library patrons, often avid readers, are looking for the convenience afforded by the digital format. Similarly, academic books have seen a spike in purchases. Textbooks are notoriously expensive and it makes sense that students would seek out a slightly cheaper, more convenient solution.
One of the most encouraging trends is the rise of independent or self-published titles. Taking traditional publishers out of the picture has allowed authors to find their own niche and their own audience. There are lots of subgenres, like paranormal romance, that may have been difficult to get through a traditional publishing house. Now all one has to do is write the book, get it properly formatted, and sell it.
This shift in the industry has finally made it possible for people to earn a living off their writing. Gone are the days of the starving artist, the continued rise of eBooks has changed the landscape for anyone who has always wanted to write a book, but didn’t think they could get it out into the world. Now there is space, now there is opportunity.