On Ebooks

I should begin by saying that I’m a Luddite. I hate ebooks, and I think everybody who owns an ebook reader is in league with the devil and should be exterminated. I believe ebook owners, one and all, have contributed to the decline of quality literature, eroded the education of our youth, and, therefore, have destroyed America and all that was once good about this country. They are the barbarians at the gate.

So I’m unhappy about this… But I do feel the need to address those who claim print books are still alive and the “death” of print is much exaggerated.  See, this month brought us the results of first quarter 2011 electronic sales that, for the first time, have been accurately tracked industry-wide. Most publishers and distributors have been shrugging off ebook sales and, in 2010, ebooks pitched dangerously into the territory of self-published buffoons. But, then, behind the scenes, Apple stepped in. They actually did so when the iPad was announced. They quietly regulated ebooks across the board. Every format, every reader, ultimately answers to Apple. This isn’t an imperial sort of mega-conglomerate thing. What Apple did was insist on a specific format for ebooks on the iPad, then they convinced everyone else that standardizing the format was smart, so now everyone has to adhere to the rules. Unless you’re a self-published buffoon, in which case you’re charging 99 cents for your ebook and you aren’t worth the effort.

This reshaped the ebook industry, brought it under control and once again on track with quietly taking over the world. The fix, as they say, was in. And the results are now in our hands. Where do we stand as we see out the first half of 2011? Well, for one, folks who say print is not dead are now firmly in the same camp as adherents of Betamax in the 80’s and VHS in the 90’s. 

So, two parts to this article. I’ll first look at how we got to this awful crossroads and, next week, discuss how luddites such as myself can not end up like the Beta and VHS people who refused to accept change. Because, now that we have the results, publishers have started to change the nature of ebooks. To push the envelope as far as it’ll go. Consequently, ebooks are going to be very different beasts in 2012. 

Let’s first address the idea that X percent of book sales are still mainly print books. We can break this down easily. First, we consider the source. That source is indie bookstores and the feverish proponents of those stores. An institution that has shrunk by roughly 60% in the last few years. There’s a random percentage for you! But let’s not worry about percentages…let’s take my painstakingly created marketing list comprised of indie bookstores in North America which I relentlessly hound to sell my books. In 2007, I had 600 names on that list. In 2009, the list had shrunk to 350. I’m currently updating the list and it looks like we’ll be lucky to hit 280. 

So when these places insist that print sales are outstripping ebooks well, maybe so. Maybe because all of their competitors are dead. That does, naturally, work in one’s favor.

Now, it is true that physical book sales at bookstores are better than they are online. This is probably where the percentages come from. People do still like to browse so, on average, maybe three quarters of physical book sales do happen at a bookstore and not via Amazon or what have you. Jeff Bezos has openly said how Amazon’s print bookstore section has always been in the red and exists only because he loves books. Taken alone, the Amazon book section is a failure. It makes no money.

But are indie bookstores really hanging on? Let’s, again, look at the microcosm. Here I am in Washington, DC. A cosmopolitan city with some ridiculous number of colleges and universities. I think it’s in excess of 21. So we’re not dumb.

How are our indie bookstores doing? Well, there’s Politics and Prose, which exists today largely thanks to nostalgia more than anything else. It is, otherwise, a financial disaster. Kramer’s used to be a nice bookstore with a cute little café in back. Now it’s a nice café with a cute little bookstore in front. Busboy’s and Poets have taken that to the extreme. Their bookstore is now more closely related to a tourist information kiosk. Olsson’s is long dead. The only indies who have survived serve very specific subjects or communities. Our used bookstores, as well, are all fading gently into the night.

Soon, you won’t be able to browse for books at bookstores. Which, of course, is their Raison d’etre. Remember the last hurrah of the ma and pop video stores during the rise of Blockbuster? When many of them switched over to big hits only and slowly liquidated their older movies? That’s the future model of the bookstore – small, special order folks. An ebook kiosk, maybe. A café…maybe.

On the corporate front, Borders is dead and Barnes and Noble has gone septic. Most print sales go to indie stores because, for the past year, publishers have been warned away from Borders and Barnes and Noble (whose credit card is rejected half the time).

So, okay, the print sales numbers put into context. Now – ebooks. We began measuring in 2011 with the almighty holiday sales. By late January, there was hope. Ebook sales only outstripped print sales by a narrow percentage. We’re talking maybe 10% more. It’s here where the industry used the language of “additives” and “supplements” to book sales. Ebooks were obviously on the rise and a faithful, noble addition to traditional sales.

But those of us watching who had brains could see the writing on the wall. No matter how you dismissed it, the fact is that holiday ebook sales beat holiday print book sales. For the first time, we saw the scales tip to electronic formats. And, of course, the other writing on the wall was the extraordinary spike in the sales of ebook readers. The number one gadget gift in 2010 and, especially, 2011. Ah-ha! So millions of people got a Kindle at Christmas. What’s that going to do?

By the end of January, the Kindle revolution was starting to show its stripes. Amazon reported that “for every 100 print books sold, it sold 115 Kindle books.” Still about where we were in the post-Christmas counts, though the trend was now starting to move out of fluke territory.

By March of 2011, there was a reported 115% increase in ebook sales. Print sales dropped by, roughly, a quarter. Remember – these sales were already behind ebooks slightly. Amazon, in that same month, released figures claiming that the Kindle was the “best selling product ever.” They backed this up with sales figures that outstripped items across the board – from the Toy Story 3 DVD to the Call of Duty videogame to popular music releases. Figures for ebook sales on holidays and other select days from Christmas through March showed “158 books sold per second” via Kindle’s Whispernet.

In early March, Harper Collins took measures to halt the lending of ebooks. The first publisher to untick the box giving lending rights to the ebook market, and taking measures to withdraw ebooks from libraries and institutions. The backlash nearly sank them.

Just a few weeks ago, Random House announced the expectation that roughly a quarter of their trade will be electronic by 2012. This is another factoid that leads to the fallacy of “most book sales are print.” Random House is a giant, selling books across the planet and with a thriving academic wing. Yes, they are still living off of print books. But when you point to that as an example of the continued life of print books, it’s kind of like comparing Google to a search engine developed by three kids at a high school magnet program.

In April, results were coming in. Ebook sales were through the roof and print sales had dropped, across the board, by roughly 30%.

When we last saw the public figures (as we currently can see on Wikipedia and elsewhere), ebooks represented 8-10% of the book market. That’s how things looked in early 2010. A study in March saw that increase to 20%. Where we stand now is to be determined, but it’s easily at the halfway mark.

As the royalty statements came down from the hills, the tally of first quarter ebook sales, now being collated and whispered about in the corridors of publishing power, shows approximately 1.7 million ebook sales per month, on average, with the trend moving strongly upward. 70,000 Kindles are sold each month. Amazon’s ever-changing estimates are now roughly two to one in favor of ebook sales.

Ebooks represent the best aspects of the bookstore model – impulse buys. All that stuff up at the cash register on display. The books are cheap, you can browse them at your leisure for free, and you can download them instantly wherever you are. That’s how we think and play these days. No notes, no wishlists, no reminders. A friend on the commuter train says you should read the latest Lee Child and so you download it in one minute.

How many of you indie store supporters own a Kindle? How many authors? Publishers?

It’s the convenience that we seek, and the holy shrine of gadgetry. We want to “start reading it in under a minute” even though we all have infinite to-read piles at home. I certainly do.

When it comes to supporting indie bookstores, that’s a lost cause. From the publisher perspective, indie bookstores have become the enemy. They’ve forgotten who their allies are. As we approach the End Times, they’re starting to return to the fold, but it might be too little too late. Publishers and, especially, agents have betrayed the stores, anyway. Whether through mutual spite or backlash to how indie stores have behaved over the last decade is hard to say.

Long ago, agents and publishers would gladhand bookstores. Bread and butter, you know? The great Sam Lawrence took this to the limit, becoming essentially a travelling salesman who went from store to store and propelled his authors to the stars. But, he’s long dead, and so’s his philosophy. And, as the chain stores crept onto the scene, the indie stores began digging their grave. They shot themselves in the foot during the co-op craze over the last six years or so. It became common practice to charge publishers $500 to $1000 for a reading. This often came as a bill after the reading and was called a “co-op advertising fee” or something equally nebulous.

This is, thankfully, on the decline… But only because small and medium publishers have become wary about booking at certain stores. We shouldn’t be too unhappy with the slow demise of the bookstore. Their battle-weary shenanigans may have shifted publishers and authors back to where it all started – readings at bars, festivals, and private homes. The slow death of the indie bookstore has reintroduced the grassroots aspects of marketing back to the industry. A sea-change that will change the industry from a “publishing industry” to a “writing industry.”

And, from there, publishers and authors are beginning to realize that the ebook can deliver more than just words. The ebook’s capabilities are more in line with a raucous reading at a bar, music humming in the background, the author a few drinks in and shouting for people to shut up and take a seat. This is literature, goddamnit, and you’re going to enjoy it. And it’s going to look very different in 2012…

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