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Digital Books or eBooks

We get many questions about eBooks, so we decided to put some facts and figures together about them to give our potential authors some insights.  Most of the data herein are from personal communications with Jed Lyons of NBN, America’s largest book distributor, from online articles such as the one by Nick Morgan of Forbes, and our own dealings with Amazon and other eBook vendors as well as Bowker and Wikipedia and authorsearnings.com.

There often is a large time lag before data can be assembled and published, and in most cases that is 2 or 3 years. So let’s look at the most recent year, 2014, for trends. About 300,000 hard- and softcover new and revised titles were published in the USA by traditional publishers; a further 1.1 million titles were issued by non-traditional publishers. This last category is comprised primarily of reprint houses specializing in public-domain works and by presses catering to self-publishing ventures and ”micro-niche” publications. Their titles are marketed almost exclusively on the web and printed on-demand.

Compare this total (1.4 million books published in 2014) to the 50,000 soft- and hardcover paper-printed titles created in 1995. Then compare that to the 250,000 total titles published in 2002.  As you can see, there has been an explosion of new titles in the last 20 years.

Of this 300,000, about 75 percent are fiction and the rest falls into the category of nonfiction: biographies, memoirs, histories, economics, educational- and technical-related materials, and specialty books. Erotica is a significant part of the fiction genre, possibly as much as a third of the market; these range from soft (potboilers of a white-knight-rescuing-a-damsel-in-distress with a passionate kiss at the end) to books such as Fifty Shades of Gray that are somewhat more graphic. It is interesting to note that printed erotica has remained strong even though one would have expected that a lot of this industry would have migrated to the Internet.

Of these 300,000 books, about 15 to 22 percent are also published in eBooks. 

Then there are eBook-only titles. It is not known how many eBooks get published because leagues of them do not apply for a Library of Congress registration number and, thus, are very hard to count. Professionals estimate that between 1.1 and 1.2 million eBook-only titles were published in 2014.  This number includes the 15 to 22 percent of titles, mentioned above, that are printed and also released as eBooks.

So a couple of things stand out: 1) Despite all the hoopla, traditional for-profit publishing by commercial publishers remains by and large a paper-product industry. 2) Everybody and his brother who wants to be known as an author today is now published in eBook format, making it a jungle out there, with more titles than leaves on the trees.

Nick Morgan of Forbes believes fewer books get published per year, maybe as few as under a million titles. (We tend to believe the 1.4 million estimate.) He says that half or more of these are self-published and, on average, sell 250 copies.  As his article says: “Your book won’t stand out. Hilary Clinton’s will. Yours won’t.”  The articles goes on to say that it is true that on rare occasions self-published books sell millions of copies, but this is very rare, in the order of 1 or 2 per million published. So, that comes down to less than one per year.

A bit more on eBooks. After the turn of the twenty-first century, this format caught on rapidly, and by 2013 it claimed 22 percent of all book sales on Amazon. In 2014-2015 however, the market share of eBooks peaked at 24 percent (almost equaling hardcovers at 25 percent), but by late 2015 it had dropped to around 17-18 percent. These numbers are from Amazon, which sells over 60 percent of all eBooks worldwide. Because Amazon is so dominant in selling eBooks, we assume that if we took sales of all book formats from all book vendors, eBooks would fare worse. 

An article in Fortune from July 2016 claims eBooks sales dropped to 17 percent of all book sales in 2015 at Amazon but that these numbers are misleading as they only represent the sales of the Association of American Publishers. Fortune maintains that the dropping eBooks sales of the AAP are being offset by self-published eBook sales. It is certainly true that the market share of eBooks for the largest traditional publishers has dropped off. 

Authorearnings.com says that the share of self-published and small publisher eBooks has gone up as well as their earnings. This site offers various statistical tables but they offer no direct comparison between total sales for printed books vs. eBook sales. What is clear is that in five publisher categories, they show overall eBooks sales are either dropping or leveling off.  Anecdotally we can say that our own eBook sales have leveled off in recent times; moreover, we are told by others in the book trade that eBook sales are also on the decline with them. On a dollar-sale basis, it seems very clear to us eBooks are falling in market share when compared to print sales.

OK, we’ve discussed these general trends in the market, so let’s now focus on the hunting-and-sporting-firearms publishing niche.  The opinions here are our own, but they are based on thirty years of marketing, selling, and producing books in our own particular genre.

In our niche, most readers still prefer paper, and this is changing only very slowly. So in order to truly get adhesion in the market, you must first publish a paper version and then, if successful, a digital version. We feel that publishing a digital version only is an exercise in futility. Digital alone simply does not sell squat!

The marketing of a paper book remains easier than that of a digital copy. Why?  Well, because printed magazines and most websites tend to review printed books more willingly than they do digital ones. Because the barrier to entry is so low for a digital book, it is hard to know if the product has any type of traction or appeal in the marketplace for magazine editors. Of course it helps, with both paper and digital books, to be published by an established publisher.

To market a digital book yourself, you first need to establish a digital footprint with a blog, Facebook page, or Twitter account, etc., and then start building up a following. You will need this following so that you can hawk your wares. If you do not have this footprint, you are nowhere, but to create such a footprint, you will need to spend countless hours and probably a lot of money on computer-geek consulting time . . . unless, of course, you are a tech wizard.  So while the actual cost of promotion via the digital medium (HTML e-mail, posting on Facebook, etc.) is very low per unit, the cost of getting a digital mass of Lookie-Loos (fiends on Facebook) that are interested in your platform is hugely time-consuming and quite expensive.

To this add the following: In our opinion paper is the only way to legitimize a book. Why? Since the amount of books published in digital-format-only is gigantic and since the cost of buying these products range from free and 99 cents to a few dollars, the consumer cannot see the forest for the trees and is not able to discern what is drivel from what is good. So, for now, in order for a book to gain legitimacy in the marketplace, it needs to be printed by a recognized publisher; otherwise, it falls into the legion of tens of thousands of self-published products produced by specialty “Have-You-Written-a-Book?” shops that charge a few thousand to ten thousand dollars to launch and forget your digital book. The same very much applies for digital print-on-demand books.

The short version is this: Digital-only books wither on the vine 98 percent of the time. (Yes, that rhymes.) A paper product is needed to rivet attention and marketing focus on the book.