There’s been a load of press commentary today in the UK about the ebook market continuing its long, slow decline to oblivion (BBC, Guardian, Times to mention just three) whilst physical book sales are making a long overdue comeback. This is all thanks to some recently published research by the Publishers Association.

Different outlets have a different spin on the story: the BBC and Times focus on the fact that childrens’ fiction sales are at an all time high (which is a good thing – kids should be reading), while adult fiction declined, but most eye-catchingly in terms of ebooks: “The figures suggested that ebooks were a passing fad after the second successive decline in sales. Digital sales for adult fiction, the largest category for ebooks, fell by 21 per cent in 2016 after falling 11 per cent in 2015. Sales of non-fiction and children’s ebooks also fell.” The Guardian chose to include a rather snooty piece on how “clunky and unhip” Kindles now are (I know – I was shocked too…).

Now, I love a good story as much as the next person, but I’d like to try and add a bit of balance, something which was largely lacking from the above stories. This is mainly because I’ve seen reactions from quite a few authors ranging from (a) hysterical laughter, to (b) anger, all the way to (c) dismay and resignation (“I had a dream, thought I could do something, but there’s no point – no one wants ebooks any longer!”). It’s group (c) I want to speak to in particular here, while exorcising my own (a) and (b) demons…

Full disclosure – yes, I am indie author, meaning I don’t have a publishing agreement with a traditional publisher. Also, yes (in common with most indie authors) I do rely on Amazon, Apple, B&N, Kobo and others for my income, and a fair chunk of that income comes from ebooks. So it’s in my interests to defend ebooks, yes. But I also sell physical books (my paperbacks are in all good e-tailers, kids!) so really I’m more interested in people just reading.

No. My interest is in the truth, dammit!

So here are my thoughts on the news today:

  1. Let’s get one thing out of the way right now – bias. This story came about as a result of research carried out by Neilsen (more on them later) for the Publishers Association (I’ll refer to them as “PA” from here on in ‘cos I’m lazy). Who are the PA? Well, in their own words: “The Publishers Association (the PA) represents book, journal, audio and electronic publishers in the UK, spanning fiction and non-fiction, academic and educational publishing. Our members include global companies such as Elsevier, Wiley, Pearson, Penguin Random House, Hachette and the University presses, as well as many independent publishing houses.” So let’s bear that in mind – there’s nothing at all wrong with them acting in the interests of their members, but let’s keep that in mind when we consume their statements.
  2. The commentary in the above-linked articles came from such people as Stephen Lotinga (the Chief Exec of PA), James Daunt (MD of Waterstones), Cathryn Summerhayes (literary agent at Curtis Brown). What do all these people have in common? That’s right, they have a ‘bit’ of a vested interest in promoting sales of physical books through brick-and-mortar book shops (which tend to be overwhelmingly published by the big traditional publishing houses, BTW).
  3. The data under discussion was produced by Neilsen, a reputable company who are leaders in producing book sales data. However, all data is only as good as its source. To make my point, I’ll quote the paragraph toward the end of the Guardian article here: “The figures from the Publishing Association should be treated with some caution. They exclude self-published books, a sizable market for ebooks. And, according to Dan Franklin, a digital publishing specialist, more than 50% of genre sales are on ebook. Digital book sales overall are up 6%.”
  4. My understanding is that Neilsen tend to base their data (happy to be proven wrong here) on ISBNs and their equivalents, being the registration numbers all books have which allow booksellers to track them, etc. But here’s the rub: most ebooks (and in particular self-published ebooks) don’t have ISBNs. They’ll have the equivalent for Amazon (ISIN) and iBookstore and the like, but Amazon in particular aren’t very good at sharing data with others.
  5. Indie authors overwhelmingly sell more ebooks than physical books, and tend to outperform traditionally published authors in this respect. Don’t believe me? Check out Data Guy’s much more in-depth analysis at http://authorearnings.com/report/february-2017/
  6. So that’s right: the data in the articles, leading to such sweeping statements as “It’s not about the death of ebooks, it’s about ebooks finding their natural level.” (James Daunt) and “I don’t think people are reading long-form fiction on their phones” (Kathryn Summerhayes)… These were based on data taken from only a small segment of the market, excluding the bit most relevant.
  7. So the story is actually: (a) traditional publishers’ incomes from ebooks are declining, relative to traditional publishers’ physical book sales. (Not really a surprise given that many traditional publishers price ebooks at extortionately high levels, and often don’t have very effective strategies for ebook marketing – as is set out eloquently by Harry Bigham about mid-way down the above Author Earnings report.), and (b) No comment on the other 50%+ of the market as we don’t have the data. (But actually, as the Author Earnings report sets out, ebook sales are actually increasing, when you take into account indie publishers and other outlets…)
  8. My main beef is with the continued talking down of a huge segment of the market by traditional publishers who are trying desperately to maintain a status quo which existed before the advent of the Kindle. They don’t really like it that any of us can now get our stories published and out there without having to run the gauntlet of the hallowed gatekeepers of the traditional publishing world. Usually of course they belittle the quality of indie published books, conveniently ignoring the fact that many, many indie authors (including me) actually invest a lot in developmental editors, copy editors, proof readers and beta readers to ensure that the quality of our finished products are at least as ‘good’ as trad published books on that basis.
  9. You may say I’m being bitter because I don’t have a publishing contract. Not really: having seen the ins-and-outs of such things, I’m perfectly happy staying indie – ‘why?’ is a tale for another blog post…
  10. My main motivation for writing this post is (as I said at the outset) to add balance. There is a vested interest out there to belittle indie authors, particularly by the traditional publishing world. In a way it’s great that they invest so much time and money in doing so: it shows us indies are doing something right, and again if you look at the Author Earnings report you can see that the indie author community is a vibrant, entrepreneurial and successful one.
  11. So I want to sign off with a plea to anyone reading this who’s thinking about becoming a writer and may have been dismayed by today’s press comment. Please, don’t be put off. No one can promise you untold riches (not even an agent+trad publisher team). But there’s no better time to be a writer – for the first time in history you can get your voice out there, the way you want it. And people do want to read – lots and lots of them. If you work hard at it, learn from your mistakes and listen to your readers, they will even say nice things about you and pay you for it so you can do it more and more.
  12. Ebook / paperback / hardback / whatever – it doesn’t matter. As long as people are reading and enjoying stories they love, we’re all good. Just don’t let the propaganda get the better of you.
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