eBook Sales “Slip” Following a Pattern Set by Digital Magazines, Newspapers

6678340013_231a39b758_bAre 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 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, a lot of digital publishing efforts today are embarrassingly bad. Whether we are talking about ePub books or replica edition newspapers and magazines, many 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.

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 readers make different choices than they do today.

reposted with permission from Talking New Media

image  by colinlogan

D. B. Hebbard

View posts by D. B. Hebbard
Douglas Hebbard (or if you are using D.B. Hebbard use that) is a 30+ year veteran of the newspaper and magazine publishing business, and has been publisher of the digital publishing website Talking New Media since 2010.


  1. fjtorres27 September, 2015

    The last part about the economics of digital vs print is what most matters.
    Print *needs* high volume to survive as a *profitable* business. For the past couple of years pbooks have been marginally profitable while ebooks are very profitable even at low volumes. (Hence the Indie explosion in genre and niche markets.) The big publishers are trying to push readers to print to maintain the viability of print but with their declining unit share it doesn’t matter what their customers do; the larger market will continue its march to digital unhindered, much as what happens in the premium auto markets (Lexus, Cadillac, etc) has little to do with what happens in trucks or econoboxes.

  2. William D. O'Neil27 September, 2015

    “First, it has always been the case that readers have preferred print … There is good reason for this: print is portable, convenient, and easy to read.”

    But it has always been the case that I preferred Kindle to print, and even more so now that we have the Voyage. Yes, print can be prettier, but as a reading vehicle the Kindle Voyage is superior for most books, precisely because it is more portable and convenient, and easier to read in many circumstances. And its superiority is greater still when publishers make books with it in mind (as I do with mine). And I don’t think I’m unique, only unusually forward-looking. I foresaw the digital revolution as early as 1964, and most of what I envisioned has come to pass. What I foresee for books is the virtual extinction of print. You can think it’s wonderful or tragic, but the economics will dominate in the end. Print books will become a craft product, sold for their aesthetic value in small numbers (at high prices, with little return for those who make them.)

  3. Syn27 September, 2015

    I think voice or audiobooks is going to trump them both in the distant future. Especially as narrators improve and start turning reading a book into acting it. I just finished a book with 4 or 5 narrators, all took on a role of a different characters in the book. This took it from listening to a book being read to listening to a play being acted out.

    Publishers are so busy trying to squash ebooks, they aren’t watching audio books. And guess who’s helping to grow that market too?

  4. Mackay Bell27 September, 2015

    Actually, a low price can’t get me to buy a print book. I prefer ebooks and not only do I avoid print books, but I’ve pretty much tossed out my old print library to save space. I prefer being able to carry a huge library in a small portable device and the ability to change font sizes is a game changer for me because I have dyslexia. I read many more ebooks per year than I ever did in print simply because of the font issue.

    If I have a choice between a 7.99 paperback and a 9.99 digital book, I would buy the digital book. (If I really needed it. I generally won’t buy books over $5.99. And if the book isn’t available for Kindle, I’ll do my best to avoid it.)

    As you point out, ebooks have gone from almost zero to 85% of paperback sales in about five years. That’s amazing. I don’t think you need much more to explain the very small dip in ebook sales by big publishers other than they raised prices.

    Not only will this be unlikely to slow the long term growth of ebooks, it will likely cause a lot of long term damage to big publishers control of the market. They are rapidly losing market share of ebooks sales to indies and actually strengthening Amazon’s dominance over the market (since Amazon caters to indies and high prices make ebooks less attractive to other distributors).

  5. Roland28 September, 2015

    I prefer digital today, after having amassed a print library in excess of 2000 print books in 30 years. I love print, the feeling of paper and cloth in my hand.

    Why digital then? I am moving often, from one country to another. Now I can take my digital books with me in one reader and I do not have to pay thousands of dollars to have my print books moving with me.

    Yes, I have never looked on the price equation print to digital, given my appetite for books, fiction and non-fiction alike. Nevertheless, I think we have all witnessed how especially non-fiction books on Amazon went from just below 10 bucks to close to 20 bucks now. Maybe that price point is just not the right one, especially when you compare a “touchy” print book in one’s hand compared to a “cold”, virtual “download” of a digital edition. Yes, agree, one should pay for content first, but still…

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  7. SpringfieldMH28 September, 2015

    E-book sales slip and decline? Perhaps for big traditional publishers, who are now routinely pricing their e-books as high or higher than their paper books, in an attempt to protect paper and profits. But apparently not for self-publish/independent authors who price their e-books competitively. See the Author Earnings site.

    1. Nate Hoffelder28 September, 2015

      Well, yes.

      You can also see the coverage here. I’ve already made that point.

  8. William Ockham28 September, 2015

    I think the premises of this article are misleading. Let’s take them in order:

    You say:

    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.

    How many people still use printed phone directories? It sure seems like those readers prefer digital, doesn’t it? The problem with “readers prefer print” is that framing the question that way confuses rather than illuminates. Sales figures from the AAP don’t tell us much about reader preferences for many reasons. The digital challenge for traditional trade publishing comes from far more than ebooks and reducing it to that is foolish, if your goal is to actually understand what’s happening. Lumping the primarily ad supported periodical industry (newspapers and magazines) with the trade publishing industry obscures how and why technology is affecting both.

    You say:
    Second, a lot of digital publishing efforts today are embarrassingly bad.

    Whether or not that statement is true, it’s irrelevant. It’s not production values that are holding back digital publishing. It would be more useful to ask why don’t the “not bad” digital publishing efforts do better than the “bad” ones. The answer is that your definition of “bad” is just wrong.

    You say:
    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.

    Nope, you have zero evidence that is true. Show me the “major hit” to print book publishing when Borders’ closed. It never happened. There was a very small, very temporary readjustment, but the trade publishing industry didn’t contract at all. Likewise, you can’t blame Apple (who is primarily a hardware manufacturer) for the lack of growth in ebooks and digital magazines.

    Forget “digital-first”. Think consumer-first. I say consumer rather than reader, because a substantial portion of the books sold in the U.S. aren’t purchased by the reader. You provide an excellent case study with your example. Most purchasers of “The Diary of a Wimpy Kid” aren’t readers of that book. Next January, you will be able to find the print/ebook sales ratio of that title. Compare it to the ratio from last year (when the ebook was substantially cheaper than the print book). See how big the difference is. There is a lot more than price at work here.

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