Does the eReader and eBook Sales Decline Really Signal a Resurgence for Print Books?

Depending on who you ask, e-books and e-readers are either at the vanguard of a technological renaissance that benefits authors and readers or are slowly destroying the traditional publishing business and the livelihood of the authors that rely on it.  Another round in this debate was kicked off this fall with the release of recent sales data for e-readers and e-books and arguments have been made on both sides of this battle about the significance of the data.

The Decline in Sales of e-books.

Throughout much of 2015, publishers have noted a steep decline in the sale of e-books and, in September, the New York Times reported that e-book sales had dropped by 10% during the first five months of the year. The sales figures from this report came from the Association of American Publishers who collected the data from over 1,200 publishers.  This downward sales has continued and earlier this fall HarperCollins, Hachette and Simon & Schuster all reported significant declines in the sale of e-books. The Times concluded that:

E-books’ declining popularity may signal that publishing, while not immune to technological upheaval, will weather the tidal wave of digital technology better than other forms of media, like music and television.

The decline in the sale of e-books has also developed, perhaps not surprisingly, with a decline in the sale of e-readers.

The Decline in Sales of e-readers.

In October, the Pew Research Centre published a report showing a significant decline in the ownership of e-readers.  The report, which was based on the results of a survey, showed that 32% of adults reported owning an e-reader in 2014 but this number had dropped to only 19% by 2015.  Pew attributed the decline in e-reader ownership to the increasing prevalence of smartphones and tablets rather than a decline in the consumption of e-books:

These changes are all taking place in a world where smartphones are transforming into all-purpose devices that can take the place of specialized technology, such as music players, e-book readers and gaming devices.

In the current technological environment, single purpose devices like the Kindle, are having a hard time competing with all-purpose devices such as smartphones and tablets.  This decline has become so pronounced that Waterstones, one of Britain’s largest bookstores, decided to stop selling the Kindle due to “pitiful” sales.  And on this side of the pond, Barnes & Noble reports that sales of it’s Nook device are down 28% so far this year.

The e-book Market

While e-reader ownership and e-books sales from traditional publishers are declining, it is not clear whether the overall e-book market is itself in decline.  While it is certainly possible this is happening, a number of arguments have been made that the overall e-book is at worst stable and at best growing. In reaching this conclusion, the significance of the sales data has been called into question on a number of different fronts.

First, a  decline in the sale of e-readers by itself does not necessarily equate to a decline in the overall consumption of e-books.  This is true, in part, because a dedicated e-reader is not required to read e-books.  Amazon has long had an e-reader app that can be used to view e-books on many smartphones and tablets without the need to own a Kindle or other dedicated e-reader. It is certainly possible to maintain a vibrant e-book market while dedicated e-reader ownership declines provided enough readers continue to buy e-books for their smartphones and tablets.

Second, after numerous stories were published about the decline in sales of e-books, it was quickly pointed out that this data only applied to the sale of e-books from traditional publishers and did not address the sale of e-books from self-publishers and many independent publishers. The sales of e-boooks from self-publishers and independents have remained steady and, in some cases, risen over the last year.  Still, hard numbers are not easy to come by as Amazon, the undisputed largest seller of e-books, does not release it’s sales data.

Finally, it has been argued that the sales of e-books from traditional publishers have likely been declining because these publishers raised the price of their e-books after the antitrust litigation ended.  There has been some disagreement about whether this was a calculated move by traditional publishers to force readers back to print books or simply a miscalculation by these publishers regarding the willingness of readers to pay more for e-books than Amazon had been charging.  In any case, one unanswered question is what happened to the lost sales from those traditionally published e-books.  Did those readers gravitate back to print books, transition to the self-published and indie market or simply keep their money in their pocket?

Of course, many authors would just like to reach the largest number of readers possible without regard to the format of their book and these authors see e-books as a way to extend their reach.  Others follow the e-book route because they are unhappy with the profit sharing offered by traditional publishers and still others do so because they have been shut out of the traditional publishing system altogether.  The result has been the creation of two different publishing worlds: one for traditionally published authors that rely on print books and, to some degree, e-books and another for self-published authors that rely entirely on the e-book format.

The question many would like answered is whether the digital publishing world is destined to chip away at the traditional publishing model until print books become a niche market.  In a society that has been programmed to want clear winners and losers, it is probably not surprising  that each side of this debate is now arguing the declining sales data supports their business model.  It is not certain, however, that a clear winner will be declared any time soon and it is possible that the best outcome for this fight might be something that is anathema to those seeking winners and losers: co-existence.