The Decline of Ebooks? It’s not what you think

stacked books with a tablet on top

There is a celebration going on in the traditional publishing world. A danse macabre over the decline of e-books. It’s being touted as “digital fatigue” and a cursory glance at the numbers might appear to support the claims. According to a Publisher’s Weekly report, a survey conducted by the Association of American Publishers shows a 14% decline in trade publisher’s ebook sales. These figures are supported by a study performed by The Codex Group that found a 3.9% drop in ebooks market share compared to print.

One might assume from this information that the age of eBooks has ended. Before you buy into that idea and cast aside your ebook publishing dreams, let’s take a look at the facts behind the statistics.

Claim #1 – Print book sales are on the rise: They are, except all of 2015 increases came from … wait for it… the sale of adult coloring books. When those sales are removed, the print industry gives back its 2% increase and looks as anemic as ever.

Claim #2 – Digital e-book sales are down: For traditional publishers they are. Perhaps, though, not as a result of “digital fatigue” but due to their own making in the form of price increases.

When the traditional publishers won their concessions from Amazon, the first order of business was to raise e-book prices. Most “trade” e-books are offered at prices equal to a paperback book (12.99). Consequently, readers save little when buying electronic over printed versions, and by price comparison, the print copy seems almost a better deal.

Reaching Conclusions: Before we accept the findings of those who would like to see the pesky independent authors quietly leave, we should consider that those aligned with traditional publishing (Publisher’s Weekly and The Codex Group) benefit from grasping at certain narratives.

I’m not suggesting dishonesty. I’m pointing out that maybe the reason trade ebook sales are declining is because their pricing strategy “guts” the consumer. Obviously, if the price increase coincides perfectly with the sales decline, that would appear the most likely cause. I question motives when facts are used to jump to outlier conclusions. Here is how that looks:

Assumption: People will pay higher prices for ebooks

Action: Increased ebook prices

Result: Decrease in ebook sales

Conclusion: Digital Fatigue is the problem


We should also consider that Amazon, the largest seller of ebooks, does not share sales data for these surveys. Consequently, we can’t know the real direction of e-book sales.

A final factor to consider is that the most loyal, hardcore readers of ebooks and independent author ebooks probably belong to the Kindle Unlimited program. Just like those of us who had memberships to Blockbuster now have memberships with Netflix.

The Unlimited “borrows” and associated payments are not reflected in these sales surveys. So it is entirely possible, even probable, that any “lost” sales have moved to the Amazon program.

What I believe is reader engagement has changed and so must the way we measure it. No one looks to the record and CD sales to measure a song’s success—we measure “listens” on Spotify and iTunes. The measure of a television program’s success includes both “live” viewing (the slotted time of broadcast) and “live plus 7” (Live views plus those DVR views within seven days of broadcast).

But you should review the facts and draw your own business conclusions. To start here are two articles to compare: The Publisher’s Weekly report and one from Fortune Magazine.