September 23, 2015 Last Updated 2:08 pm

AAP reports eBook sales have slipped 10%, following similar pattern seen in digital magazines

Are we reading too much into the recent reports that eBook sales are declining? Were factors at play that spurred past growth, like low pricing, that are not a factor today?

The media is catching up to something readers here at TNM have known for a while: digital media sales are slumping, caused by a number of things, but slumping, nonetheless. In July, the Association of American Publishers stats for Q1 of this year showed trade eBook sales down 7.5 percent, with print sales up a tick, though essentially flat (hardbound down, paperback up). Their latest stats show eBook sales through June down 10 percent.

Those who have an interest in promoting print over digital seemed to rejoice.  But as anyone who bet against the web should know, believing digital publishing is somehow a fad will be a bad bet.

Booksaleschart-415So, what is going on? Are readers really rejecting digital reading products? Or are publishers, or their vendors to blame for the declines?

First, it has always been the case that readers have preferred print, at least in comparison to the kinds of digital products they have been presented to date. The earliest studies, conducted by companies heavily invested in digital, showed that the number one preferred platform for books and other published materials was print. There is good reason for this: print is portable, convenient, and easy to read.

Studies also revealed that while readers hated those Flash flipbooks, they were open to reading on tablets and smartphones, and this is where we have seen growth the past few years.

Second, most digital publishing efforts today are embarrassingly bad. Whether we are talking about ePub books or replica edition newspapers and magazines, most publishers look at digital as just another distribution channel for print, not as an original publishing platform. One simply can’t compare a high quality printed book or magazine to a poorly converted digital product.

Third, just as print books and magazines took a major hit when Borders and other distribution channels shutdown, so too has digital been hit by Apple’s failure to maintain the Newsstand or promote the iBooks Store. Google, meanwhile, has not stepped up to replace Apple as the leading sales outlet (ahead of Amazon for newspapers and magazines, but far behind in eBooks). (Though with the acqui-hire of some of the Oyster team, this may be changing.)

One could also point to declining tablet sales as a cause of sales declines, but as smartphones have grown larger many readers have begun using their smartphone as a reading device. Several publishers have publicly stated recently that they are targeting smartphone readers more and more, understanding that in some ways the tablet and smartphone market are merging into one digital device market.

Everyone has their theory about what is happening to eBook sales. Glenn Fleishman, the former publisher of The Magazine, the digital magazine founded by the developer Marco Arment, thinks its about shareability:

But sales to the public of digital media, eBooks and other digital publishing products, are only part of the picture. All the while eBooks and digital magazines continue to grow inside libraries – public and corporate – and in education. The advantages of digital, including nearly unlimited selection, ease of storage, and on-demand access, mean that digital publishing is superior to print in many ways that are important in these segments of the market.

Additionally, print remains a marginally profitable business. Many newspapers and magazines continue to struggle to turn a profit, while US book publishers have to live in fear that yet another of the big retailers may go out of business (or at least severely shrink).

MozartProject-150The somewhat better outlook for independent booksellers probably has less to do with a radical shift in consumer buying habits than a result of fewer big box bookstores. Plus, consumers never rejected independent bookstores so much as preferred the kinds of selection often found in bigger retail outlets. Take that option away and the small retailer ends up benefiting. Besides, book and magazine readers have always loved their local retailers, even if they have also loved getting discounts elsewhere.

But the future of digital publishing of books, magazines and newspapers is probably not in the hands of traditional publishers. The best work in digital, despite claims by the publishers themselves, is not coming out of Meredith, or Penguin, or the NYT, but from new independent publishers who are thinking digital first. For the past five years traditional print publishers have given mostly lip service to their digital media work, knowing investors will demand that they talk up digital, all the while making it hard to produce profitable digital print products. How many big magazine publishers, for instance, created sales teams to grow revenue inside their digital editions?  How many book publishers began designing and publishing new works digitally first and print second?

Despite declining eBook sales, the segment still is around 85 percent the size of the paperback market. Five years ago that would have seemed enormous. What has proved disappointing to some is that eBook sales have not already surpassed that of paperbacks or hardbacks. But a big factor in the early rise of eBooks was pricing: eBooks were simply far cheaper than that of the print edition, but no longer.


One sees this even at Amazon. Its number one “Fall Blockbuster” book is Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Old School by Jeff Kinney, due out in November. One can pre-order the Kindle edition for $7.52, or the hardcover for $7.92 – which would you choose?

It is easy to love print over digital when price is taken out of the equation, and the print edition is lovingly designed and print, while the digital edition is merely an ePub (or PDF replica). There is simply no comparison. But if both products were priced factoring in the actual costs to produce and distribute the products, if both products were designed to produce the best possible reading experience, then one might see that readers make different choices than they do today.

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