Like wildfire, the eBook boom took hold of avid bibliophiles between 2008 and 2012. With Kindle leading the charge, readers indulged in a new era that stripped away the hassle of bulky books and purchase delays, and presented one ergonomic, streamlined system.
Soon companies like Apple were incorporating similar features into their software. As with VHS, celluloid cameras, and vinyls, the physical publishing industry and its ferocious advocates feared that physical books would become a nostalgic play thing reprised every-so-often by brace-wearing hipsters. Surprisingly, books didn’t die out. In fact, the number of sales in recent years has escalated while digital sales have declined.
Physical Renaissance; Digital Decline
In their annual report, the Publishers Association shared statistics for 2017-2018 and showed that the sales of physical books in the UK had risen 5% to £3.1 billion, meanwhile digital book sales were down 2% to £543 million. Digital sales aren’t just stagnating – they’re falling and have been for years. In 2017 eBook sales fell 17% and 4% again in 2016, as opposed to prints steady rise of 8% in 2017 and 7% in 2016. There is an abundance of data to identify consumer trends, but what about writers – especially indie authors – who benefitted hugely from the invention of the eBook?
With over 48.5 million books available on Amazon alone, an estimated three-fifths of material is available in – or is exclusively an – eBook. Within this statistic lies a breadth of indie books. Under the well intentioned ethos that eBooks are cheaper and easier for consumers, many indie writers have published exclusively digital: part marketing strategy to grow a fan base by selling affordable products. If we consider the Book Association's statistics, we can see that five out of six times, people choose print. Why is that?
Amazon Is Planning Ahead Of The Curve
Simply, Amazon and subsequent companies underestimated the intense relationship between book and consumer. From an aesthetic standpoint, fresh print and gorgeous matte covers enhanced the reading experience; there is the culture of sharing and gifting; the simplicity of studious readers that annotate and note directly onto the page; even the materialistic collectors building Instagram worthy book cases.
There’s a reason why retailers such as Waterstones have a dedicated section to beautiful covers. The aforementioned are all things that cannot be replicated or bettered in digital form. Unlike film, television and music where the digital age stripped it of its packaging, the same could not be said as books are in and of themselves both packaging and product. Books can never die out. That being said, neither will digital entirely, and that’s down to cost.
Socio-political factors have always underpinned consumer trends. Rife in academia, those from poorer backgrounds tend to purchase eBooks whilst paperbacks – and hardcovers especially – tend to be bought by the middle-working class. It’s a systemic, classist problem that has been the topic of debate on the educational system for a while, but is also reflected in fiction. With physical books dominating book sales and eBooks eliminating poverty-bias, it seems that more than ever indie authors should be looking at diversifying how they publish.
As reported by Wall Street Journal, Amazon is currently amalgamating smaller imprints such as KDP under the umbrella of Amazon Publishing and last year’s figures show that they grossed $16 billion through physical sales of books. The decision to focus on traditional publishing illustrates that Amazon identified market trends and are now benefitting hugely from their monopoly. Regardless of whether Amazon gauges trends or makes them, their activity in recent years highlights a shift in consumer culture to the physical book once more. Therefore, indie authors who publish exclusively digital could be at risk of dwindling sales figures and should consider following Amazon’s example if they wish to continue selling their work.
Indie Authors Should Consider Double Dipping
Every eight years or so the literary market cycles through trends (both genre and format) and it seems to be on the cusp of another. Compared to 2008 when the world witnessed the birth of Kindle, there has been a surge of printing companies designed specifically for the indie writer. There is of course KDP – soon merging into one platform as Amazon Publishing – and well received companies like Corporate Colours and Create Space. Although they don’t offer quite the same profit margins as Kindle eBooks, they have been tried and tested within the indie circle by writers like Jenna Moreci and help to further their reach across various platforms. But that’s not at all.
As the Publisher’s Association noted, sales in audiobooks increased last year by 28%, making up nearly a tenth of the digital market. The association also noted a direct correlation to the gradual increase in physical and audio sales with a 16% rise in children’s and young adult novels, who have proven to prefer reading in physical formats or listening via audible whilst multitasking. Therefore, writers of those genres must certainly strategize their campaigns to be inclusive of these formats.
If trends come and go, will physical books stand the test of time in the next few decades? The smartphone and tablet industry is on the verge of a new product that could threaten the game of books: the foldable smartphone. Physically they collapse on themselves just like our paper favorites, emulating the aesthetic pleasure that flat kindles couldn’t.
There are also the likes of screen protectors with a paper-like grain, adding a natural element to digital work on tablet devices. Of course, the planet is facing the devastating consequences of deforestation and soon there will be pressure on publishing companies to only use recycled paper which may affect book prices and push people back towards the digital experience. Either way, whether following trends or aiming for mass appeal with their fiction, writers would do well to dabble in each market, especially now that print is relishing in its renaissance, having survived the threat of the eBook.
Meet the Guest Author
Born and raised in Cornwall, England, Terry Kitto was never found without reading a book or penning one of his own. Teaching himself to write screenplays in Sixth Form, he took his creativity to Film School at Falmouth University. There he wrote the first draft of biopic Christopher’s Queen and studied postmodernism in long-running television series', earning a First Class with Honours. He further developed his television writing skills at the University of Salford, with a PGDip in TV and Radio Scriptwriting.
In February 2015 he won the award for Best Writer at the New York 100 Hour Film Contest with the short Can You See Me? and was shortlisted for the BBC's Writers Room 2016 with comedy-drama Brunswick House.
Terry is currently editing his first novel, The Frequency, based upon a book that he wrote in his teens.