I wasn’t surprised to learn that almost all of the books I bought and read in 2016 were ebooks—bought online from Amazon. In fact, a number of the books I decided to reread I already owned in print, but I decided to buy ebook editions after I started to reread them. This was because those books that were paperbacks (some that I bought over 30 years ago) were generally in terrible shape—covers falling off, pages falling out––and the small print made some of them unreadable. The hardbacks were in better shape, with larger print, but they tended to aggravate the arthritis in my wrists when I read them for any length of time at one sitting.
In contrast, my Kindle Paperwhite is small, lightweight, with adjustable fonts, and it is easy to dust so I don’t sneeze when I pull it out to use.
Of course, all of these reasons for my shift to ebooks are to a degree related to my age, but there was another reason I was willing to pay for a book I already owned, as well as buy so many other books by new authors; the relatively low prices on many ebooks.
Throughout this past year, there has been a constant stream of articles stating that ebook sales are in decline (and print sales are up.) See this post as one of the most recent examples.
While the data coming out from traditional publishers—and the Association of American Publishers—seems on the surface to support this claim, what anyone who has followed this discussion should know by now is that this data only describes what is happening with books published by traditional publishers. In contrast, the Author Earnings Reports, which are the most comprehensive data we have on ebooks, conclude that Amazon ebook sales rose 4% in 2016.
The main plausible explanation for this negative trend in ebook sales for traditional publishers is their pricing. Once the big five got back the right to set their own prices for ebooks without discounting (something they had lost temporarily when they were found guilty of anti-trust violations), they went back to pricing their ebooks higher—often at the same or higher price than their mass market paperbacks.
At the same time, Amazon, once they lost the right to discount traditionally published ebooks, started discounting traditionally published print books. This made the print editions of traditionally published books more attractive than ebook editions to many customers.
What publishers didn’t anticipate was that this simply drove more people to buy their print books online (when their stated goal for pricing ebooks high had been to help brick and mortar books stores stay competitive.) Ah, the problems of unintended consequences.
And what traditional publishers seem willfully to misunderstand is that many of their customers didn’t just shift to the print edition of a book, many of them decided not to buy that traditionally published book at all, but to take a chance on an indie authored book.
I found my buying patterns quite representative of these trends in consumer buying.
Let’s first look at my buying patterns before ebooks, which followed a very predictable pattern.
First, for authors who I had read and liked, I routinely bought their books as hardbacks as soon as the book came out. I justified this because I knew there was a very good chance I would reread those books often multiple times, so the higher price (and longevity) of the hardback seemed worth it.
Besides I didn’t want to wait for the year or more for the book to come out in paperback. Of course this is why traditional publishers were very reluctant to start issuing ebook editions of their books for at least a year…hoping that impatient readers wouldn’t wait.
Second, I found new authors primarily at the public library, and I would often go every couple of weeks and just browse, picking up books based on the cover and blurb.
Third, if I really liked one of these books I got at the library, I would then go to a bookstore and look for less expensive paperback editions of the author’s work, particularly looking for earlier books in their series. If I found myself rereading this these paperbacks…I might then shift to buying the author’s newest books in hardback as the were published.
So, I got books by new untested author for free, bought backlist books as inexpensive paperbacks, and bought the newest books by my favorite authors as expensive hardbacks (although at one point I also joined a mystery book club where I could get those hardbacks at a discount.)
So how do I act now that I read mostly ebooks?
Some basic data. Twenty percent of the books I bought (not downloaded for free) were .99 cents, and an equal percentage were over $9.99, leaving sixty percent between the price of $2.99 and $9.99. This is the price range that Amazon recommends (and encourages indie authors to set by giving them better royalties for books priced in that range.)
Again, not figuring in free books, the average price I paid for an ebook in 2016 was $7.90. And I spent over $500 on ebooks.
What surprised me was that my pattern book buying was very similar to the pattern I followed before ebooks—although I probably paid more on average for books back then.
The ebooks in the higher price category (above $9.99) were either bundles or box sets—which meant I was actually getting a whole lot of stories or books for the higher price––or they were newly published books by my favorite authors. Except for the existence of bundles and box sets—which I never bought before—this followed my usual pattern before ebooks.
Yet, there are a good number of formerly “favorite authors” whose new books I decided not to buy last year when I saw the high price of their ebooks. And, unlike the consumer that the traditional publishing houses celebrated, I was unwilling to shift to buying these authors’ books in paperback—even if the paperbacks were cheaper.
I can name at least 8 authors whose books I consciously decided not to buy that fall into that category. And the only time I bought print books this past year were either children’s books for my grandchildren, a couple of books for research that weren’t in ebook form, and several used paperbacks of books by a favorite author that were both out of print and not reissued as ebooks.
I am clearly one of those consumers who’s reaction to the higher priced ebooks by traditional authors was turn to start looking for books by different authors.
As in the past, I still preferred to try a new author if their book didn’t cost me anything. But instead getting these books at a library, I discovered them in promotional emails or browsing in Kindle Unlimited. Interestingly, the books I was most likely to start and then not finish were those I got through Kindle Unlimited. I think that this is because I am really thinking of them as “borrowed,” very much like the books I used to get from the library. They hang around in my to read pile, in case I get moved to pick them up again, until it is time to return them so I can try another unknown.
This doesn’t mean I don’t read books I get from KU, just that I seem more willing to risk getting something completely unknown if it is free, and the chances of one of those books not panning out is therefore higher. Yet, if the author I just took a chance on pans out…I will go on and buy other books by them.
So that brings us to the 99 cent price point. These are the kind of books I used to buy as paperbacks. Most of the 99 cent books were books I saw discounted in some sort of promotion. And while a couple of them were by new authors I was taking a chance on, most of them were older books by authors I had already read and knew I liked. Many of them represented the books I talked about at the start of this post—books I owned in print but wanted in ebook editions and jumped at the chance to snap them up when they went on sale.
Then there are the books I paid between $2.99 and $9.99 for.
These were by the authors I’d discovered at a low price point (free or 99 cents) and gone on and bought all of their books in the series or bought the author’s newest book that was just released. By in large these were books by indie authors, and these were the authors who had replaced my formerly favorite authors published by traditional publishers whose ebook prices were just to steep for me.
I feel some sympathy for those authors—the one’s who rightfully feel the new world of traditional publishing (with smaller advances, more competition for less shelf space in bookstores, and lower yearly royalties) are not serving them well. But it is their publishers’ decisions on pricing that created this new reality for them. It is their publishers who have chosen to believe that readers like me will be so loyal that they will limit the number of books they can buy a month in order to pay the higher price for a specific author’s book.
So, here I am, still getting books by untried authors for free (or 99 cents), getting backlist books from authors I’d discovered in this fashion for moderate prices, and only paying the highest prices for my very favorite authors. The only difference is they are all ebooks, they are all bought online, and more and more of my favorites are indie authors.
So, what are your buying patterns for recreational reading? And have they changed with the introduction of ebooks, online stores, and social media promotions?
M. Louisa Locke, March 10, 2017
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