The mass market paperback book is rapidly becoming a threatened species. Now, I knew that the paperback market has largely collapsed, as least for science fiction and fantasy, but until I talked with my longtime editor last week and went over some numbers, I hadn’t realized just how bad it had gotten. I did know that my own paperback sales had dropped off, but the increase in ebook sales has largely compensated for the paperback decline in my own case…. but only because I have a large backlist, since the increase in ebook sales from more current titles has not compensated for the drop-off in mass market sales of those titles.
Historically speaking, for most authors, more than half, if not more than eighty percent, of paperback sales of a title occur in the year or so after the initial paperback release. Because the decline in mass market paperback sales has been so precipitous, more and more authors sold by major publishers, especially midlist authors, are discovering that their only print publication is either in hardcover or trade paperback, after which the titles are only available in ebook format.
At the same time, it appears that self-publishing in ebook format is becoming increasingly competitive and that, as a result, for many authors who’ve chosen this route their ebook revenues are also dwindling. Then add to this the fact that Amazon is still pressing, if less obviously, for the top price for ebooks to be $9.99, and the fact that author revenues for ebooks are calculated as a percentage of the net revenues based on the sales price and not the list price. In addition, Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited program in a very convoluted way [involving an opaque pooling system] that I’m not about to try to explain in a blog will reduce the revenues of participating authors considerably. Then add in the impact of the shift/increase in VAT tax rates for EU countries, and the likely decrease in revenues from that, one way or another.
While industry-wide publishing statistics indicate that ebooks only comprise around a quarter of total book sales, I have serious doubts about the applicability of those statistics to fiction publishing and especially to F&SF sales, since Nielsen statistics indicate that for the last quarter of 2014, 65% of all ebook sales were adult fiction of some sort.
The bottom line is pretty simple from what I can see. On average, the very top authors will continue to sell about as many units as they recently have, but will make somewhat less money. Best-selling authors below the top hundred [that’s an estimate] will see noticeable declines in revenues per title released… and authors below that level will likely see even greater decreases in income unless they increase their output and/or marketing efforts. This is, of course, a prediction of a general pattern, and there will always be some authors who will prove the exception… but I doubt there will be many.