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. Continue reading