The Myth Of The Vanishing E-book

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I had a reader friend ask me yesterday, “Why do big publishers hate e-books?”

It’s a valid question which many people are asking. If you’ve been watching, you’ve seen the price of ebooks from major publishing houses skyrocket in the past year, moving from under $7 for an e-book (on average, on Amazon) to upwards of $15-20, sometimes with little or no difference between print and e-book prices.

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This has lead to many folks (who I won’t call out by name, but you know who you are) crying ‘the sky is falling’ on the decline of revenue from e-sales.

Firstly, let me clarify a few things real quick. (I’m going to be sharing some data graphs from Author Earnings, a website that tracks this sort of data, but if you want to see their entire breakdown, just go here: http://authorearnings.com/report/february-2016-author-earnings-report/)

  1. E-book sales are NOT down. In fact, when you take into account the rising number of self-published and indie published authors selling e-books–and having great success doing so, digital sales are very strong. Sales of E-READERS is way down, because guess what? Most of us already own an e-reader or other device that supports e-books. No shock there, really.

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  1. Print sales are not ‘rebounding’. Ok, yes, it looks on the surface like print sales are up (if you look at a few charts being passed around the internet that often don’t include all the relevant data), but when you look very closely, you see that those numbers are artificially inflated with coloring books. Yeah, you heard me. Like 6 of the best-selling print books last year were freaking coloring books or semi-autobiographical books from youtube stars.Yes, they are books. But come on, let’s not kid ourselves. Coloring books are a fad that will vanish as quickly as it came. But that said,
  2. Print books are not going anywhere. There will always be print books, and there will always be stores that sell print books. Period.

Ok, with that out of our way, let’s talk meat and potatoes. Big publishers don’t hate e-books. Quite the opposite. They clear a tidy margin on e-books just like everyone else. So why are they holding the prices so high? Well, there’s a few reasons.

Firstly, despite what some stores would have us believe (shoots major side-eye at B&N), large publishers still have a stranglehold on the print market. Yes, you can make your self-published e-book a print edition with Print on Demand (one of the MAJOR POD companies is actually owned by B&N, in fact), but guess what? POD books are not eligible for placement on B&N shelves. (and considering they OWN one of those companies, it really makes you wonder, why, doesn’t it?) Yes, there is a process by which you can make your POD book returnable and apply for possible shelf placement (see: B&N’s latest announcement about being ‘indie-friendly’ which, let’s be real, is a crock. Their policy is the same as its always been, this new media blast is just making people AWARE of the avenues that have always been in place and are no more ‘indie-friendly’ than they ever were.), but that rarely happens, and when it does, you may get an order for 10 copies. Nothing like the 50,000+ copies big publishers get in store. As a matter of fact, I’ve seen self-pubbed authors who are NYT best sellers be rejected by the B&N small press department. So don’t be fooled. If you long to see your book on shelf, big publishing is still the golden ticket. But in order to maintain that, they have to actively push buyers TOWARDS print books. They do this by raising the price on their e-book properties to the point people say, “Well, for that price I’d rather just get the print edition.”

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing for anyone. It keeps print books selling, and thus, keeps the print industry alive, and it also gives small press and indie authors a real chance to compete, if only in the e-book arena. (for now… *laughs maniacally* I mean, check out those small-medium press numbers two images down)

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Secondly, they are holding their books up as having a higher perceived value due to higher cost. I know, that sounds silly, but consumers are sort of predisposed to think that higher prices mean better quality–and that simply isn’t the case. It definitely used to be. Publishers used to be the gatekeepers that kept crappy books from being published (in theory, anyway) and let’s be honest, there are still many many self-published books not worth the time it takes to click on one, which doesn’t help the overall stigma self-published authors can face. But with so many authors producing quality books and basically KILLING it in self-publishing, they are no longer a force you can just write off.

And finally, let’s be real, big publishers can afford to charge more. Sure, they may lose some sales, but at the end of the day, the price difference will make up anything they lose. Of course you’re going to go buy that new “insert wildly popular author/series here” novel–no matter how much it costs. It’s really the lesser known books/authors who lose out in that model. For every one book that takes off for a major publishing house, they probably have ten that never earn back their advances. And they can handle that loss because that one book that did take off probably sold millions of dollars. It’s a VOLUME of sales that keep them in business, and that’s where they make their bread and butter.

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Why am I telling you all this? Why should you even care? Because, for authors, it doesn’t have to be an us against them, indie vs traditional world. What you as an author need to know is how each type of publishing works, what you want for your book and your career, and then you can make those decisions for yourself. No specific way is better than the other, and I don’t think it’s Highlander “There can be only one” either. There is room in the industry for everyone, and the really great thing is, you don’t actually have to choose a side. Try both, or pick whichever fits you best. It’s a golden age in publishing where indies are flourishing in ways we’ve never seen before, and traditional publishers are expanding and revamping their old models of business.

For readers, it means that maybe you have to adjust your buying habits, maybe you check out some indie authors whose e-books are a little cheaper, or buy fewer books per month or even *gasp* borrow books from your local libraries. (I’m not judging. I hate borrowing books. I want to OWN them.) But I promise it’s not a big evil company just trying to stick it to the man by pricing books too high, just like it’s not indies who are trying to put print out of business by selling books too cheaply. We are all just doing our best in the market right now. We all have to eat, have to keep the lights on. And every time you buy a book, you help us do just that.

So, thanks.

And read on, my nerds.


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