Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Two-Cent Tuesday: Peaks and Valleys

I read a headline and description of an article last month--because I'm way too busy to actually read a whole stupid article--about how ebook sales have leveled off from their rapid growth in 2009-2011.  Predictably people shouted about how paper isn't dead and ebooks are a fad and whatnot.  Paper isn't dead but ebooks still aren't a fad.  Then I think people tried to explain the plateauing of ebook sales.  I have my own explanation.

I liken it to what happened recently with 3D movies in Hollywood.  At the end of 2009 Avatar came out and people were all ga-ga over 3D movies.  So of course Hollywood decides to cash in by making EVERYTHING 3D, even movies that had no business being 3D.  At the same time movie theaters realized that charging people $5-$10 for a crummy pair of 3D glasses was a great way to recoup some of their losses from fewer tickets sold.  It seemed like a golden age that was never going to end.

But of course it did end.  Or like with eBooks it didn't so much end as plateau.  In the end I think it was that too many movies were retroactively converted to the format and just looked like shit.  The public finally got wise enough to realize that they shouldn't spend $20-$30 per ticket for every lousy movie.  And so the numbers have pretty much flattened out if not declined.

I'd compare that to ebooks where in 2009 and a little before that the Kindle became increasingly popular and so people were flocking to buy some ebooks for that newfangled thing.  Plus lots of "indie" authors realized the could put stuff out on the Kindle and someone might actually buy it.  Begin the gold rush!

And then publishers (and a less extent indie authors) screwed themselves over.  Publishers charged more and more for ebooks until they were more expensive than paperback versions.  Indie authors chucked so many poorly-written, poorly-edited books up there for 99 cents that the market was saturated.  I think we're at the point now where the public has wised up a bit and realized that they shouldn't pay $19.99 for the new Stephen King ebook when it's only $8.99 in paperback.  And that they don't need to scoop up every single book for 99 cents (or free) because most of them suck and who has time to read all these fucking books anyway?

It's just another reminder that every golden age has to end at some point.  That doesn't mean ebooks are doomed, just as 3D isn't doomed.  It just means the growth isn't going to be so explosive anymore, until something else comes along to shake things up and people flock to that.  4D movies?  Holographic movies and books?  Something like that I'm sure.

Tomorrow we salute another Everyday Hero!


  1. Ebooks have been struggling to happen for a decade now. For a few years because of the vast expansion of ereaders everyone thought they finally did. But it's the generation just starting to read that's going to affect any real change.

  2. I agree. A lot of those 3D movies aren't worth the extra money because the quality is poor. Also I noticed some traditional publishers are selling the Kindle version of their books on Amazon, but not the paperback. I think that's pretty clever of them because the paperback is the cheapest and it makes the customer buy it some where else. From what I'm seeing these days, it's going to be tough for Indies and small publishers. Ebooks will still sell, but I think for authors things have almost gone back to the way they were. Self-publishing is just like joining a big slush pile.

  3. The statistics still show e-books gaining ground and traditional books losing ground. People who use e-readers buy more and read more. I don't think e-books have anything to worry about.

  4. I have slowed my purchases of ebooks considerably. I still buy them, but not as frequently as I did. But I still spend a fortune on books. It's ridiculous.

  5. Apparently, holographic books might be on the way. You never know with all this stuff I've been hearing about "graphene"....

  6. "Indie authors chucked so many poorly-written, poorly-edited books up there for 99 cents that the market was saturated." That's my entire marketing plan.

    I don't know why publishers don't like ebooks, and why they continue to market paper books. I can't think of a single other industry that insists on doing things the more expensive, less efficient way. Publishers could, for example, market their own e-readers and offer discounts or subscriptions to their books. Etc. etc. I did hear an interview with some publishers, primarily smaller ones, that said they liked e-books because they can save money on shipping and experiment with pricing. When they ship out a paperback, they can't drop the price or give it away free for a day, whereas they can monkey with prices on ebooks.

    Of course, authors don't like ebooks because it opens up the club to other writers, and most people don't want competition, even if that competition isn't much of a competition. For Stephen King, leaving publishing in the hands of a small group of people who need a large pile of resources to compete works, because he's inside that fence. Allowing more people in allows for the possibility that someone else will start selling and his books won't.

    Study after study has shown that book sales aren't a zero-sum game, though; it's not "If I buy this book I can't buy that book" but more like "I will buy this book and then that book and then that book." So publishers are simply barring the door the way music types did.

    That's why they trumpet the 'death' or 'plateau' of ebooks. But just like paper newspapers are dying out, and just like "real" music is dead except for aficionados who want records, ebooks make too much sense.

    As for whether it's a slush pile or not, at least it's a slush pile that's open to the public. If I send my manuscript to a publisher who never reads it, nobody sees it but that person. If I put it on Amazon for 99 cents, someone might find it and it's available -- and people like EL James and that guy that wrote "Wool" are living proof that it works. Maybe not often, and maybe you have to wade through junk, but the average professional writer makes only $29,000 per year at it. There's more MEs than there are Grishams out there, so having a shot at making money because the public likes it is better than having a shot at making money because some English Lit Ph.D. liked my book.

    When music opened up digitally via Myspace and Youtube, that created a slushpile for bands, and people like Carly Rae Jebsen and Justin Bieber and Arctic Monkeys managed to climb out of that slush pile and make money. You can like or hate their music, and like or hate EL James' books, but those things would not exist if e-publishing/e-music had not democratized the creative process.

    PLUS I'm tired of hearing about poor quality ebooks. I read David Brin's "Startide Rising" on Kindle, paid $7.99 for it, and it had as many typos as any of my books. And I've read enough crappy "real" publishing books to know that just because some smarmy jerk in hipster glasses in New York put her imprimatur on a book is not a guarantor of quality. You're as likely to get a crummy book from a "real" publisher as you are from a self-pub. You're proof of that, PT: Frankly, I think "Time Enough..." is better than "A Hero's Journey," and the latter was "real" published while the former is indie published.

    1. I love this. I agree that those who say ebook sales are a fad isn't looking at the numbers. In 2012, ebooks outsold print books.

      As far as the quality, I like how Briane put it. It's not so much a slush pile as an open market. Anyone involved in publishing knows that lots of books get rejected for reasons that have nothing to do with quality, and lots of books get published by traditional houses for reasons that have nothing to do with quality. You don't have to read every book out there to see if it's good, just check the reviews. The good ones rise to the top, and the bad ones sink to the bottom. That's the way it should be; not decisions made by editors who are more concerned with their careers than publishing quality work. Let the readers decide.

  7. I enjoy reading books both ways: e-books and regular hardbacks. I think the future has a place for both.

  8. You're combining a lot of different trends in this article, and rolling them into one ball. Let me address some.

    Yes, the publishers got greedy, and continue to be greedy. They still have ebooks priced at or higher than print books. I agree, I think ebooks should be cheaper than print books. But the sad thing is that people are buying them in recommend numbers, so the outrageous prices will continue. I personally think no ebook should cost more than $5. Some books are only worth 99-cents. Some books are worth more than that. Some aren't even worth that.

    I wouldn't compare ebook publishing to 3D. It's more like mp3s. Anyone can create and release music now, just by converting it into an mp3 and putting it online. That bypasses the traditional music companies. In the same way, epublishing allows anyone to create and release books, bypassing publishing companies. Yes, the enthusiasm has leveled off, but only because ebooks are no longer the novelty they once were. Now they are a fact of life for the reading public.



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