Print book sales are increasing (slightly) while e-book sales continue to fall (sharply), says Nielsen’s Jonathan Stolper. Which means for the first time in more than four years, hardcover books are outselling e-books. Stolper lists a few factors driving the switch: the price of e-books has gone up, and fewer people are using dedicated e-readers. Even people buying and reading e-books are doing it on their phones and tablets, not Kindles or Nooks or what-have-you.
Whatever the causes for the decrease in e-book sales, the decline has resulted in something that many publishing experts thought would never happen—unit sales of hardcovers overtook unit sales of e-books. With hardcover units up 5% in 2016 over 2015, hardcover’s 188 million units sold topped that of e-books for the first time since Borders closed in 2012, Stolper said.
I have a pet theory about this, and it’s very simple: it’s about the stores. Here’s how it works.
- E-bookstores expand to country after country, publisher after publisher => sales of e-books go up.
- Borders and other chain bookstores shut down => sales of print books go down.
- Barnes & Noble and other e-bookstores shut down, leaving Amazon basically the only game in town => sales of e-books go down. (Also prices go up.)
- People stop using devices that are basically stores with readers attached, and use phones and tablets where it’s harder to buy => sales of e-books go down some more.
It’s the same boom-and-bust that we had when the new chain bookstores came through thirty years ago and gradually killed each other off! Lots of places to buy books, then hardly any places to buy books.
Meanwhile, indie bookstores are weathering the storm and big box stores are still pushing books at a discount, keeping print books afloat. Which is exactly what the publishers and a lot of other players in the market have always wanted: a high e-book prices, both to preserve a revenue floor and to keep the entire print market chain in business. And Amazon’s fine with it — they got the near-monopoly on e-retail they wanted.
Meanwhile, readers are paying more for books and have fewer places from which to buy them. As much as I like a good hardcover, that hardly feels like a win.
Buying a book is what they call a crime of opportunity. If there were more viable e-bookstores (and if DRM weren’t such a monster, there’s no reason every website couldn’t be an e-bookstore), we’d have better competition on price (collusion and market choices aside) and everyone would sell a whole lot more e-books.
Update: I screwed up the first draft of this and conflated hardcover units with total print sales. (I also forgot to include the link to the Publishers Weekly story I quoted.) To be clear, hardcovers are outselling e-books now, from the publishers covered in Nielsen’s survey. E-books have never outsold all print books — even rosy projections back in 2014, when e-book sales were about a third of the market, didn’t think they’d cross that 50/50 threshold until well into this decade. Thanks to Doug Gates who spotted the error.
Update 2: Dan Cohen pointed out a number of other factors tipping sales measurement in favor of print: “dark” but legal reading of e-books that doesn’t get counted (libraries, open e-books, DRM-free private sales by authors and indies), and increased sales of audiobooks, which eats away at the e-book market. E-readers, too, haven’t really improved much; neither have the aesthetics of the books themselves. Other readers pointed out that readers feel burned by stores and services failing.
In short, “cost” is probably the biggest factor, broadly defined — but what exactly that means and how it plays out in readers’ choices is a lot more complex than a binary choice between e-books and print.
Okay, I’ll chase ONE new story today. But it’s about this fundamental problem of converting old media objects into new ones, and I get to dig up some old blog posts too, I feel like I’m still in character.
Google Books claims to have counted all the books in the world: “129,864,880 of them. At least until Sunday.” But as Ars Technica points out, that number is dubiously wiki:
Google’s counting method relies entirely on its enormous metadata collection—almost one billion records—which it winnows down by throwing out duplicates and non-book items like CDs. The result is a book count that’s arrived at by a kind of process of elimination. It’s not so much that Google starts with a fixed definition of “book” and then combs its records to identify objects with those characteristics; rather, the GBS algorithm seeks to identify everything that is clearly not a book, and to reject all those entries. It also looks for collections of records that all identify the same edition of the same book, but that are, for whatever reason (often a data entry error), listed differently in the different metadata collections that Google subscribes to.
But the problem with Google’s count, as is clear from the GBS count post itself, is that GBS’s metadata collection is a riddled with errors of every sort. Or, as linguist and GBS critic Geoff Nunberg put it last year in a blog post, Google’s metadata is “train wreck: a mish-mash wrapped in a muddle wrapped in a mess.”
It’s not just Google that has a problem. I wrote a post for Wired.com last week (“Why Metadata Matters for the Future of E-books”) about how increased reliance on metadata was affecting publishers of new books, who also depend heavily on digital search — and generally how bibliographic and legal arcana around e-books affects what we see and how we come to see it more than you’d think.
But I wish I’d added Google’s woeful records to the piece. It’s not like I didn’t know about it; here’s the title of a post I wrote a year ago, also citing Nunberg’s post when it first appeared at Language Log: “Scholars to Google: Your Metadata Sucks”.
Attention milk product enthusiasts: The 2009-2014 World Outlook for 60-Milligram Containers of Fromage Frais has been released, and it won the dubious distinction of the Bookseller/Diagram Prize for Oddest Book Title of the Year.
The benefits of winning the award appear to be few. According to Philip Stone, The Bookseller’s charts editor:
“What does the future hold for these items?” Mr. Stone asked, speaking of fromage-frais cartons. “Well, given that fromage frais normally comes in 60-gram containers, one would assume that the world outlook for 0.06-gram containers of fromage frais is pretty bleak. But I’m not willing to pay Â£795 to find out.”
For those of you who are more into designer accessories than dairy almanacs, the Calf & Half pitcher lets you pour with udder abandon.
And if you’re looking for more clandestine cream, bring your own containers. Raw milk, once our only option, then treated as a potential health hazard, now finds itself on the black market.
Shaking up tech publishing: “It seems that the industry standard [for authors] is something akin to 10% of the profits (which easily take 4-5-6 months to arrive), being forced to write in Word, and finally a production cycle that’s at least a good 3 months from final book to delivery. That’s horrible!” Building a shop “to take $19 from your credit card” and laying out books in InDesign aren’t as easy as he makes it out to be for everyone, but it’s a great overall point.
I got an email this morning from a kottke.org reader, Meghann Marco. She’s an author and struggling to get her book out into the hands of people who might be interested in reading it. To that end, she asked her publisher, Simon & Schuster, to put her book up on Google Print so it could be found, and they refused. Now they’re suing Google over Google Print, claiming copyright infringement. Meghann is not too happy with this development:
Kinda sucks for me, because not that many people know about my book and this might help them find out about it. I fail to see what the harm is in Google indexing a book and helping people find it. Anyone can read my book for free by going to the library anyway.
In case you guys haven’t noticed, books don’t have marketing like TV and Movies do. There are no commercials for books, this website isn’t produced by my publisher. Books are driven by word of mouth. A book that doesn’t get good word of mouth will fail and go out of print.
Personally, I hope that won’t happen to my book, but there is a chance that it will. I think the majority of authors would benefit from something like Google Print.
She has also sent a letter of support to Google which includes this great anecdote:
Someone asked me recently, “Meghann, how can you say you don’t mind people reading parts of your book for free? What if someone xeroxed your book and was handing it out for free on street corners?”
I replied, “Well, it seems to be working for Jesus.”
And here’s an excerpt of the email that Meghann sent me (edited very slightly):
I’m a book author. My publisher is suing Google Print and that bothers me. I’d asked for my book to be included, because gosh it’s so hard to get people to read a book.
Getting people to read a book is like putting a cat in a box. Especially for someone like me, who was an intern when she got her book deal. It’s not like I have money for groceries, let alone a publicist.
I feel like I’m yelling and no one is listening. Being an author can really suck sometimes. For all I know speaking up is going to get me blacklisted and no one will ever want to publish another one of my books again. I hope not though.
[My book is] called ‘Field Guide to the Apocalypse’ It’s very funny and doesn’t suck. I worked really hard on it. It would be nice if people read it before it went out of print.
As Tim O’Reilly, Eric Schmidt, and Google have argued, I think these lawsuits against Google are a stupid (and legally untenable) move on the part of the publishing industry. I know a fair number of kottke.org readers have published books…what’s your take on the situation? Does Google Print (as well as Amazon “Search Inside the Book” feature) hurt or help you as an author? Do you want your publishing company suing Google on your behalf?