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The Publishing Industry Thinks Facebook and Netflix Are Doomed

The legacy publishing industry keeps bleating about "screen fatigue" as the cause of why people are buying fewer of their ebooks (because it could not possibly be that Big 5 ebooks cost too much, oh no).

Industry accomplices in the press are more than willing to repeat this claim without question, which is a pity because it doesn’t even pass the sniff test. It’s not just that the industry has never shown any evidence, but also that larger trends in online behavior do not support that claim, either.

I was reminded of this when I read this morning’s Shelf Awareness newsletter. They had someone at yesterday’s CEO Talk at the Frankfurt Book Fair, recording the various claims made by  S&S CEO Carolyn Reidy.

From beginning to end, the piece is nothing more than a record of the industry telling itself the emperor is wearing clothes, but this part in particular caught my eye.

Noting that it’s been 10 years since the mainstream adoption of e-books began, Reidy and Dervieux talked about why they think the dire predictions of the death of print have not come to pass. Reidy proposed that while nothing "went wrong" with e-books to cause the leveling-off of their popularity, consumers most likely simply "got tired of screens." She noted that for years before e-books, publishers had been "taking pennies out of the cost of making a book," but when digital became widespread, publishers began "spending years putting value back into the book." Dervieux wondered if perhaps the industry expected "too much, too soon," from the e-book format, and remarked that even by the "grace of Jeff Bezos and huge discounts," such a large shift in consumer habits could not happen in such a hurry.

Reidy added that she believes "very firmly" that a new version of the book based on digital delivery will come eventually, though she does not know what it might look like. "Some person who is young and grew up with the screen will come up with something that I hope we recognize," she continued. "There will be a new form of it, because there has to be."

Yeah, we’ve been hearing that bit about screen fatigue for what, a couple years now?

While it sounds plausible and it is a great distraction from  the fact that high ebook prices are negatively impacting sales, the simple truth is that it is utter bunk.

If screen fatigue were a real thing then you would already be reading stories about people using Facebook less. If it were real then there would be headline stories about Nielsen data showing people are spending less time online (they’re not).

If this were a real thing then a Google search for "people spend less time online" would turn up a hundred stories on the trend (it doesn’t).

I could go on, but do I really need to keep finding zero evidence to back up this claim?

If you have any, I would love to see it.

And it had better be good, because there is also a fundamental flaw with the current discussion of screen fatigue: The term describes a decline in an activity (use of screens) and it is being used to explain away a drop in commercial sales.

It goes without saying that there is no direct connection between the buying ebooks and using a screen any more than a decline in DVD sales would automatically mean people are watching fewer movies on their TVs.

You’re welcome to make the argument, but good luck with that.

image by Johan Larsson

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Tom Wood October 12, 2017 um 3:56 pm

"Reliable sources" say blah, blah, blah. Then the "blah, blah, blah" gets re-quoted again and again. Then a 'Thought Leader' gets up and says it again as heads nod because they’ve already heard it, so it must be true. It happens in many industries.

They’ve trotted out 'screen fatigue' as an alternative fact in an attempt to drive the narrative in the press. I suppose for the purpose of maybe, maybe, influencing buyer behavior? Seems like a longshot.

gbm October 12, 2017 um 5:02 pm

Lets see S&S is wanting $12.99-14.99 for a mid-list to best selling author in ebook format, yet self-published authors–some who are million sellers–are selling new ebooks in the $3.99-5.99 price range. It does not take a super-genius to figure out were my money is going.

Barry Marks October 12, 2017 um 9:45 pm

I wonder if the press was approached with the story that this is a scam being pulled off by big publishers they might perk up and take a look at the evidence. Just a few people crying it ain’t so isn’t getting their attention. It could be a story that would interest the press if presented in the right way.


Randy Lea October 13, 2017 um 12:56 am

One thing the publishers have never published, that I’m aware of, is the number of ebooks units they sell at various price points. They clearly don’t want ebooks to succeed, their prices make no sense otherwise. Economics saye they would most likely sell many more books at a lower price, and with ebook costs per unit near zero, with huge margins, why net sell them at a lower cost?

I do think the trend is for people to read, but shorter length content, that’s the bulk of the internet. I don’t really see this with books, but I’d expect to see shorter works of popular series. Something like a 50 page mystery, in a series.

Overall, Amazon is really the only folks to see the entire market for all books, printed and ebook. If and when they pull back, then I’ll believe ebooks are dead.

Bill Smith October 13, 2017 um 9:11 am

Younger people ARE using Facebook less … but that’s because they’ve migrated to Instagram and Snapchat and their messaging apps to get away from their parents snooping on them.

Screen fatigue? If anything, in the future there will be an army of plastic surgeons dedicated to detaching young peoples' faces from their screens because they can’t go anywhere without looking down every 10 seconds.

And of course, to actually address her comments, sure for them paper is up, electrons are down. That’s because they’ve priced themselves out of the ebook market and the indies are taking over the market with lower pricing, more frequent publication and being more responsive to readers needs (being more in touch with readers).

Peter Turner October 13, 2017 um 2:00 pm

Reidy and Dervieux asserting that ebooks are "levelling off" is misleading (at best) as their is no available sales data on self-published ebooks. What has leveled off is the number of ebooks sold that are published by "traditional publishers" in relation to those sold in print format. The relative health of print should be measured by units and dollars as a percentage of the overall book sales (print and digital, traditionally published or otherwise). It’s disturbing to think that publishers of Reidy’s stature don’t get this (or that they do and still make these misleading statements). The simple truth is that the traditional book publishing industry is in decline because the value proposition they offer authors and readers is weakening. Ironically, this is partly due to the fact that people are finding out about the books they want to purchase online via social media and other digital sources that the publishers have little sway over.

Allen F October 13, 2017 um 4:01 pm

Sadly it’s normal for those trying to claim that 'they' aren’t failing to point out the trouble they think others are having – the better to try to ignore their own issues.

The next few years should show us a whole new publishing standard. Sadly for them, trad-pub is doing all they can to write themselves out of it.

Randy Lea October 13, 2017 um 5:41 pm

Basic economics says that when they raise the price of ebooks, the unit volume drops. Also, my bet is that ebooks are the most profitable part of their business. One would expect that new ebooks have a higher price, then as sales fall off, the price drops, so that older books are fairly cheap. They are following the same pricing strategy as music companies, with all music CDs selling for the same price. And we saw what happened to them in the end.

It’s clear that they see ebooks as an existential threat to their business, publishing. Instead of paying huge prices for new ebooks, it’s my belief that ever increasing numbers of people are using their local library to obtain newer ebooks. I don’t see numbers from publishers on this, but I do see local libraries increasingly supporting ebooks. Unlike print books, there is no need to go to the library to pick up the book, or return it, the downsides are waiting for an ebook to become available and a 21-day read time.

Tom Wood October 13, 2017 um 7:49 pm

According to Data Guy ( he estimates there are 2.5 – 3 million +- subscribers to Kindle Unlimited. That model will continue to grow, and there are almost no traditionally published books there. That entire ecosystem is not reflected in any of the industry numbers.

Randy Lea October 13, 2017 um 10:55 pm

Thanks for the link, I’ll have to check it out.

One thing I’m sure of is that major publishers see ebooks as an Amazon sale, with their ~30% cut, and they are afraid to turn their future over to Amazon.

They could easily sell MOBI ebooks, but without DRM, or EPUB with or without. They aren’t smart enough to understand that DRM only helps Amazon, no one else. It certainly doesn’t even slow down, much less stop, piracy. Instead of attempting to kill ebooks, which will fail, they should work together like the movie companies and set up their own ebook store and bypass Amazon all together.

My money’s on Amazon, not the publisher luddites.

Diane October 13, 2017 um 10:58 pm

Ebook sales are down because of the high prices. I download books from the library which before the price increases, I would have purchased. I also wait for Book Bub and Amazon sales. If I had to switch back to paper, I would buy used.

Glen Barrington October 16, 2017 um 6:08 pm

Well, I won’t go back to paper no matter what happens or why. I simply will not pay more than $6.00 for a book to be red for recreational purposes, no matter who wrote it. I’m a Kindle unlimited user, and I love the exposure I get to new authors. Sure! Some are awful! But many are not!

Caleb October 27, 2017 um 12:09 pm

It’s simply a case of price-gouging customers for a new medium. Perhaps the most famous example came with the evolution of music, when cassettes went out and CDs came in. Both were on the shelf at the same time, but CDs cost almost twice as much to buy, while Cassettes cost significantly more to make. Cassettes had moving parts and required assembly machines; CDs were literally available for pennies and could be burnt off in almost no time. Those savings were never passed to the customer; instead they went to the labels.

Print Medium can clearly make e-books far cheaper than they can paperbacks, but no company sets out with a goal of saving their customers money. E-books were introduced cheap as a way to sell their devices, to make people feel the need for a Kindle or iPad. Then a price bloat happened to the books, and the number of impulse buys went down. Why would anybody pay $15 for an e-book when Walmart is selling paperbacks for $9? It’s simply become a case of waiting for new books to fall off the best seller list so that they can be purchased at a more reasonable rate.

Anyone who needs evidence that e-books are here to stay, just walk through a college campus. Everywhere, text books have been converted almost entirely to e-books. And why? Because no student wants to pay $80 for a used book that they will read once, and then try to return in the same condition only to be told the campus store will only pay $5 for it. When a digital text book costs $20-30, that is what literally everybody is using, to the point the schools don’t even want to order the print copies. It has nothing to do with convenience, weight, portability, ease of annotation, or whatever. It all boils down to price. When the digital price reflects even a portion of the savings that the publishers get, people will buy it. When the digital price reflects only increased profits for the publisher, then few people will be interested.

Children Turn Their Backs on eBooks as 'Screen Fatigue' Takes Hold, And Other Fictions | The Digital Reader February 20, 2018 um 11:20 am

[…] And as I have pointed out in another post, screen fatigue is a myth that doesn't stand up to […]

Patrick West November 19, 2018 um 7:45 am

Is there a reason you used an image of a Android phone discontinued 8 years ago and a Sony e-reader discontinued 10 years ago?

Also, while many do agree with you about e-book sales, myself included, this post comes across as a rant. There are many people who judge content by presentation.

If you are serious about “giving a damm” you might want to give some consideration to presentation.

As far as being believed, take a few minutes and watch “The Clean Room" an episode of the 2014 series “Cosmos” with Neil deGrasse Tyson.

A post saying the same exact thing but presented in non judgmental language is much easier for many to take seriously.

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