Is the eBook assault on traditional publishing over?

It has been several years since eBooks started roiling the publishing industry and book stores, but it finally looks like that maybe the onslaught from eBooks is over. While a number of indicators are that eBooks, mainly through Amazon and its Kindle reader or program for computer devices, took a large part of the market, it looks like the market may be starting to stabilized for traditional publishers, but at a much lower level of sales.

Ebooks are books that are distributed in an electronic format instead of a print format. There are multiple forms of eBooks, but one of the best well know formats is the Amazon Kindle program where books are downloaded to a special Kindle Reader or a Kindle program on any one of a number of computer devices. Ebooks have been a boom to vendors like Amazon and a great help to writers and authors for a number of reasons which have changed the market for books and publishers.

The first transformation of the publishing industry is that eBooks allowed anyone to write and publish their own book with little to no costs. Anyone can write an eBook with a word processing program, like Microsoft Word, and when done, format and upload it to a vendor like the Amazon Kindle KDP Select program for publication. A buyer can then buy either a print copy of the work or an electronic eBook version of the work. One of the big advantages of eBook over print is that there is no large cost to do a print run. Prior to eBooks, if someone wanted to get a book into print that no publisher was interested in, it would be up to them to find someone with a printing press, usually a ‘vanity press’, and pay them the few thousand that it would cost to do a print run, usually of about 1,000 books. Typically, those books would sit mostly unsold forever since there was no marketing or promotions or ability to get the book into any of the sales channels. People who went the vanity press route to get their work published would usually sell a few copies, give away as many as possible to the people they knew, and then get stuck with boxes sitting in storage in their garages and basements forever.

With eBooks, there are none of the problems of how little or how many copies a work sells. If only one copy sells or one million copies sell, the Amazon system takes care of it all automatically, downloads are automatic once paid for, print copies are only printed on demand and as ordered.

With Ebooks and programs like Amazon Kindle writers get paid much faster than the old publisher model for paying royalties. Pre eBooks, writers were only paid twice per year and there was a ‘hold back’ amount to cover returns from distributors and book stores. I personally know a person that use to have a book section in his comic book store and his distributor would allow him to return and take credit for books that had been sitting in the store for a decade, with no questions asked! An eBook does not have that problem, Amazon pays authors once per month for any and all amounts earned, no more waiting as long as 18 months to get the royalties for a book that sold a long time ago!

Another advantage for authors is that eBooks typically have a much higher royalty percentage than print copies. The typical royalty percentage for a print copy is about 17.5% of what that publisher sold the book for to a customer, distributor or retail store. The royalty for authors through the Amazon eBook Kindle program is 35% on retail prices of $2.99 and below, or above $9.99. The program pays 70% to the writer on books with a retail price between $2.99 and $9.99. Why would Amazon structure the royalty percentage this way? Apparently, Amazon has determined the most number of units and highest revenue overall is when an eBook is priced around $9.99, especially when the typical print book is around $20 to $30. So Amazon is giving writers an incentive to price their book at $9.99 to get the highest royalty payout. This is an example of how Amazon structures things so their interests and the interests of the authors are aligned in a way that traditional publishers have not been able to do so or not wanted to do so. (I would like to thank and credit J.A. Konrath for his lengthy postings about the publishing industry over the years for this information on how things work in the publishing industry. )

Ebooks do have one big disadvantage when compared with traditional print publishing, however. The problem is that with the barrier to publishing books having come down, anyone can put out a book. As a result, the market is flooded with terrible books, many of which never sell anything. As an example of how tilted the market is, I put out a book in August 2012 about taking and passing the bar exam; How To Pass the Bar Exam by Louis Desy. To date, about 381 copies have either been sold or given away under the Amazon KDP select program as a free promotional or as part of the Amazon program where authors get a cut of a pot of money parceled out to authors if they allow their book to be ‘borrowed’ under a Kindle program. Most of the time there are no sales or one sale of the book, which puts the book at about 1.5 million in ranking. That means 1.5 million book sold more copies than my book. I estimate Amazon has about 2 or 3 million titles listed and ranked in their system. That would mean there is at least 500,000 books that sold nothing in the same time period. Sales or borrowing of 2 or 3 copies of my book as put my book as high as 15,000 in ranking; meaning that everything with a higher number had not even sold 2 copies!

Ebooks has had a large effect on book stores, since with the ability to download eBooks, there is no need for a buyer to ever step into a book store again to purchase a book. This has had a devastating effect on retail books stores with a number of store going out of business since the financial crisis and Borders completely liquidating after filing bankruptcy in 2011. Barnes and Nobel has hung on since then, but large parts of the stores are now devoted to non book items, like toys and gifts, and appears to only be able to do well with its college bookstores that are mainly in the textbook business for a captive audience at the college they are part of. Barnes and Nobel did have their own eBook reader product, the Nook, but it has mostly faded away over time and was a constant money loser every quarter due to not being able to compete with the Amazon Kindle.

It can be argued that some of the changes over time were inevitable since the idea and possibility has been around since the 1980s at least. In the early years people made some efforts with computer PDF files but the problem in those was how to prevent copying and get paid for downloads? My friend that I mentioned about his comic book store, was part of an effort in the 1980s to prototype a kind of reader like device, but the hardware was not up to the task, kept overheating, and was too early in time for a successful device being made at that point. Maybe if he and his group had made their attempt in the mid 1990s the hardware would have been up to the task and they would have been successful?

In short, the changes over the years from eBooks have been brutal for book stores and traditional publishers but a boom for Amazon and authors.

Louis J. Desy Jr.
Friday, August 24, 2018

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