E-book Sales Rise, Print Sales Fall

According to estimates presented by the American Association of Publishers in this Publishers Weekly article, the publishing market continues to shift as of the final quarter of 2011. Regular print books, like adult fiction hard covers and massmarket paperbacks fell by significant figures (in some cases, as much as a 36% drop). Even YA fiction suffered a decline in sales (4.7% for hardcover and 12.7% for paperback).

What does mean for us writers? If you take into account that this “decline” has been occurring for a while now, you can probably begin to see the writing on the wall. In these times of economic hardship, people simply cannot afford to spend the money they once had on books (it would be interesting to see numbers on public library loans). For us writers, it means that publishers are taking less risks and becoming far more skeptical about the potential of new writers submitting their novels. It requires a greater degree of talent, and yes, even more “prior experience” in order to break into the publishing business now-a-days.

For us, this is pretty bad news to hear. Most of our financial situations aren’t so cozy that we can dedicate 10,000 hours of concentrated effort to reach mastery (thank you Mr. Gladwell, Outliers). Which is not to say we are lazy and will not, eventually, over the course of our lives, achieve exactly that much expertise. No, that isn’t what I’m saying at all. I am saying that it creates an environment where less-than-masterful novelists are far more likely to cave in under the stress of daily life and financial ruin, and give up this time-consuming career option. Then, even if we persevere and forge ahead, the financial crisis of the publishing industry doesn’t guarantee a career at all. With less sales in general, any new (and many established) authors would be happy for their advance and not a penny more out of royalties. In other words, keep producing books fast or you’ll starve and go bankrupt.

If that was the only set-back, we could hope that eventually the economy will get better and sales would go up. Being an American writer could once again become a glamorous thing. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The economic stress of the American people is just one cause of the effect we’re seeing manifested. There is a new venue for writers, both amateur and experienced, to release their works and get paid for them, too.

E-Book sales numbers:

  • 117% rise for the fiscal year of 2011 overall
  • In December alone, ebook sales went up by 72%
  • AAP expects “seasonal buying patterns” to grow that figure even more in January and February

Now, mind you, these figures represent publishing houses that report to AAP. In other words, established businesses that also suffered a decline on their printed media (above). They have the power of instant recognition and are vouched by their many successes in times of boon. But the numbers still suggest a pattern. Cheaper books are far more likely to be bought by people struggling economically. Think about it. What would you rather buy? Grisham’s new hardcover for 20-something dollars, or the ebook for $4.99? It’s less risky, and if you really like it, you might even consider buying the printed version. (Which, in my case, has never quite panned out. I’m a cheap bastard.)

Places like Amazon’s CreateSpace also provide the opportunity for writers to simply publish on their own, if they think their work is ready for public eyes. I have gone through some of the process when I created and ordered a proof-copy of my first novel, Trapped In Stone (still unfinished) in 2010. After a lot of work, which is really all about patience and following directions, I was one step away from publication. I was intrigued by the fact I was asked to set the price for my book early on. After all the production costs of printing were added in, I could add as much as I wanted. However, the printing costs were pretty high to begin with, and the book would be a paperback, after all. How much could I really charge for that in a world swimming in $7.99 paperback novels? Would readers pay $12.99 so that I could make two bucks on the transaction? That seemed a bit much to ask.

Now, I have clicked my way through many self-published books on Amazon.com, and I must confess my usual reaction has been to click away as soon as possible, usually with an upturned nose in pure expression of disdain. Why is this so? Well, it isn’t because of any ingrained belief that self-publishing is inherently below my standard of quality (even though my standard of quality is actually quite high). I give them a fair chance.

The first strike against most of these books is due to my own superficial nature: Bad covers. Still, that usually isn’t enough to force me to click away. Not everyone is artistically gifted, or has friends to make a nice cover for them. I usually scroll down to the Description.  Unfortunately, the Descriptions are just as disappointing as the cover, most of the time. That’s usually where I stop by browsing and head elsewhere. If the writer can’t write a good synopsis, why bother with 395 other pages? Not to mention paying $12.99. (There’s also the fact that a lot of self-published authors leave their display pages very bare and sad-looking. Isn’t there a way to make it lively and awesome? I think there is.)

That last paragraph (especially when combined with the one before it), might be enough to put a stop to anyone’s dreams of self-publishing, but only if you’re going the conventional way. Sure, the problem of horrible covers and author’s descriptions still affect e-books, but I chose to see these as challenges rather than depressing realities. Don’t know enough Photoshop to put together a good cover? LEARN IT! Can’t write synopsis worth shit? LEARN TO! Hell, it your sweat and tears, baby. You want this or not?

E-Books really offer the best solution. A spiffy looking ebook, with a good description, and perhaps some web publicity to go along with it all sells. Plain and simple. How do I know? I know because that’s EXACTLY what the publishing houses are doing. That’s how they got a 117% increase in sales in the year 2011, even while consumers remain poor, and print sales are tanking.