Future Publishing?

Over the last several years, I’ve certainly read and heard a great deal of speculation about the future of publishing and books. When ebooks were first introduced, some viewed them as a trendy but short-lived novelty, while others felt that they’d dominate the entire industry. Only a few old-time industry professionals and not many more of the newcomers foresaw the way the market has sorted itself out.

One aspect of publishing that’s overlooked is that that the non-fiction and fiction markets are very different, even though most major publishers handle both. So, if you look at overall publishing revenue, print books outsell ebooks almost four to one, but those figures don’t break out non-fiction from fiction (at least the figures I can easily find) and they don’t include the full impact of independent authors self-publishing, which is largely e-publishing. Non-fiction also tends to sell a higher percentage of print books, as opposed to ebooks, and much of the printed non-fiction sells for higher prices than fiction. So aggregated revenue figures tend to misrepresent the market.

One of the more interesting statistics I ran across was that in 2019 ebook sales comprised 18% of the total book market by revenue generated, but 36% of the number of books sold, and that 36% number tracks fairly closely to my unit sales figures – excepting audiobooks.

Not surprisingly, sales of mass market paperbacks for most authors have declined precipitously. Regardless of all the rhetoric, for most authors mass-market paperback sales have declined to a third or less of what they were twenty years ago, and that assumes that a traditional publisher will even print mass-market paperbacks for midlist (or lower) authors.

Right now, unless there’s major shift in the economics of publishing, mass market paperbacks are on the way out for most authors. Only million-copy sellers are likely to be published in mass market paperback within a decade, if not sooner. Hardcover volume for fiction seems likely hover in the same range and may even increase slightly for non-fiction.

My personal belief, backed by no statistics, is that the number of self-published “indie” authors will taper off and only track future growth of the fiction-reading public, for several reasons. First, while indie authors get a much larger percentage of sales revenue, readers expect “indie” books to be cheaper (with the growth of indie sales, some readers also expect ebooks published by traditional publishing firms to be cheaper, which I don’t see happening, except for promotional events). Second, most indie authors sell fewer copies per book. That means writing more books per year. That’s damned hard, especially if an author wants to maintain any quality, and if the author outsources editing, that adds to costs.

The other factor is that ebooks can be easily pirated, and I don’t care what anyone says or what any studies purport to show, piracy cuts revenue to authors. The drop in mass-market paperback sales has in no way been compensated for by a corresponding and equal growth in ebook revenues.

So, however it turns out, I don’t see authors or publishers getting any great windfalls from ebooks.

5 thoughts on “Future Publishing?”

  1. Martin Sinclair says:

    I find your analysis to be thorough, plausible and depressing.

    Although I own a Kindle, I use it only when I’m doing extended travelling ( not likely these days ) as I can’t afford the excess baggage charges I’d otherwise incur to transport enough reading material. As far as I’m concerned, electronic publication have a place and that is for technical reference – only because of the search feature.

    Real books allow us to flip back and forth to check/re-read and, somehow, engage with the story in a way we can’t do on a screen. If we’re lucky, we may see developments like the episode in Haze ( I think – all my books are in moving boxes so I can’t check ) where the protagonist was able to get print-on-demand copies of books ( as long as the quality is better than that of a photocopy ).

    I recently come across a Facebook group for historical novels and found it to be heavily weighted to authors ( not me, I hasten to add ), a large proportion of whom seemed to be going down the indie route. It opened my eyes a bit to the “hidden” costs that readers don’t normally seem to consider when balancing the price of an e-book against that of the hardcopy version. I suspect that I was not alone in the view that eliminating the cost of paper and printing should significantly reduce the cost of the finished e-book and that this lack of understanding may be a drag on e-book sales – am I still wide of the mark ?

    1. No. Most readers have been under the impression that eliminating the cost of paper should have significantly reduced the price of ebooks, but while paper is a cost, especially for hardcovers, most of the cost of the book is in the infrastructure of publishing — editors, proofreaders, publicists, marketing, rights and royalty specialists, artwork for the covers, and, of course, paying the author. Indie authors get a much greater share of the royalties, but they have to do all those functions… or pay someone else to do them. There’s a reason why many successful indie authors will sign with a traditional publisher if they’re offered a decent contract.

      1. Martin Sinclair says:

        Thanks for the confirmation – much of what you list falls into the “intangible” costs of producing something and I believe there’s a definite tendency to undervalue that which we can’t physically hold. And for all of these the old saying holds true – “fast, reliable, cheap – pick any two”

  2. Franklyn Hamsher says:

    Thanks Lee for the info — have often wondered what % of a mid-list currently writing authors sales are in e-books.

    I like real books to read, and order 1 or 2 a month, all non-fiction for reference purposes. I find unlike Martin that there are some advantages to reading an e-book: I can go back and reread something earlier in a by using the search function, mark passages I want to remember later, look up words I don’t know and resume where I left off. Can’t do that as easily with hard copy.

    Each type has it’s advantages. Sometimes I own both an e-book and a hard copy.

  3. Douglas Archerd says:

    I may be unduly technically-challenged, but I still haven’t figured out how to reliably set a bookmark on my Nook, go back to the front of the e-book to review the map in the preface (de rigueur for fantasy novels) and return to my reading. Paper books make that a breeze. I do appreciate the ‘word lookup’ feature on e-book readers, though. My rule is, if it’s an author I’ve found I enjoy enough to re-read their books (yes, this definitely includes LEM) I buy it in hardbound. If it’s a new author I want to try, I’ll buy first in e-book form.

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