Booky Little Lies

Pardon me while I rant for a minute.

I keep seeing articles claiming that eBook sales are down, that print sales are up, and that the trends apparent over the last several years in the publishing industry are reversing.

Frankly, I don’t believe it.

Articles that say things like Real Books Have Trumped Ebooks, or Ebook Sales Plunge. Even those news outlets that aren’t crying doom for eBooks aren’t exactly being positive about the changes in the publishing industry.

All these articles have one thing in common. They’re claiming a decline of eBook sales by something between 17% and 21%.

It sounds bad. Really bad.

But it’s not true.

If you look closely, you’ll see that these numbers come from the same source: The Publishers’ Association.

Here’s the thing about that. They track book sales by publishers. We’re talking the big boys who have dominated the industry for decades, as well as smaller presses that follow established industry standards.

What don’t they track? Independent author sales and sales by non-conforming small presses.

They say right on their website that they’re tracking “publisher revenue.” That’s a different thing than actual book sales.

I can’t swear to exactly which sales they are or aren’t tracking. I don’t have the nitty gritty details. But I’d virtually guarantee this: it absolutely doesn’t take into account books that are independently published by authors who choose not to use ISBNs for their ebooks.

By their standards, these people aren’t publishers. Those sales don’t count.

And even when you look at the sales that do count, they aren’t telling the whole story.

Like, a bunch of traditional publisher have pushed their eBook prices up to $12 or $13, while their mass-market paperbacks are still well under $10. So, yeah, their print books are selling better than their eBooks. Because of price.

But not one of those publishers is talking about revenue per sale. They don’t talk about how much money they’re making when an individual book is purchased  by an individual consumer.

Why? Because that $12 eBook that has virtually no overhead associated with it is actually supporting their print sales.

There are certain costs associated with all books. Cover design. Editing. Formatting. Marketing.

For an indie, those costs will run anywhere from $0 up to several thousand dollars, depending how they’re sourcing things and how much advertising they’re doing.

For a traditional publisher, those costs will be more predictable. They’ll contract with an artist and a cover designer. They have to edit, typeset, and format for publication. Those costs are basically the same for both print and digital books. I can’t tell you exactly what traditional publishers budget for those costs, especially since, except for original cover art, most of those services will be handled entirely in-house by people who are drawing salaries rather than getting paid for working on specific projects. But let’s be really generous and say that they’re budgeting roughly $5000 per book for those things to happen. Some of the best original art may actually cost more. But overall, I’d guess that the actual cost of these services isn’t more than the top-end of what an indie would pay, so maybe a couple thousand dollars.

Also, with the exception of a few top-tier authors, there is very little budget being spent on marketing for most traditionally published books. The books get listed in distribution catalogs. Maybe a few ARCs get sent out. That’s probably mostly it.

But print books have some extra costs involved. Like, you know, printing. And warehousing. And shipping those physical books from place to place. And, while the cover price of a book will probably be anywhere from about $5.99 for a slim mass market paperback, to maybe $29.99 for a hefty hardcover, those books are all sold to retailers at a discount which allows the retailer, the distributor, the trucking company, the sales clerk, etc. to get paid their share as those books get shuffled from place to place.

Take into account discounts, remainders, and shrinkage, and the actual income a publisher can expect from a print book is pretty nebulous.

Ebooks, on the other hand, have a guaranteed return. Yes, there are digital hosting costs and a cut of sales is taken by the distributor (Amazon, B&N, Apple, Kobo, etc.). But if you list a book for $9.99, you have a pretty good guarantee that you’re going to get $6.99 in revenue. Every time. Every copy. There are no remainders. There are no additional shipping costs. There might be occasional discounts to the buyer that will affect the income, but that would be a marketing decision that the publisher can control.

So, chances are the publisher is getting more for each eBook they sell, with less that they owe in real expenses.

Including the fact that traditional publishers often pay the author lower royalties for eBooks than they do for print.

So, yeah. I call BS on the ongoing insistence that eBooks are in trouble.

And even the statistics that say e-reader sales are down? So what? An e-reader is not the kind of thing most users will replace on a yearly basis. Plus, ownership of smartphones and tablets is way, way up, and all the major eBook platforms have apps that run on iOS, Android, and Windows. Lots of consumers will opt to use a device they already own rather than purchasing a dedicated e-reader. Especially if they are only occasional readers (say 1 book or less per month) rather than avid readers (say 1 book or more per week).

So, yeah. I’m not panicking over the alleged drop in eBook sales. And as an indie, I’m not worried about the future. Not even a little bit.

And as a reader and lover of books and stories? I do still love actual, physical books. I still buy some, especially when something I want is not available digitally, or if I’m collecting the works of a particular author. But more and more often I’m downloading eBooks or audio books. And I have them available on my Kindle Fire. And my iPhone. And my iPad. I could even have them on my desktop computer if I wanted to, but I don’t.

Remember when you see these stories popping up all over the place, you’re probably not really hearing the whole story. Not even close.

I’ll end my rant here.

Comments

  1. I’m exclusively reading eBooks these days because I can’t stand using a lamp when I read before bed. They should do something to replicate that good book smell though.

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