PUBLISHED APRIL 2016
by David Wexler, Executive Vice President, Lerner Publishing Group
Five years ago, if asked what percentage of publishers’ sales would come from digital books compared to print books in 2016, what would you have said? Fifty to 80 percent would have seemed a reasonable answer. In 2011, the great recession was still roaring and Borders declared bankruptcy. Kindle sales were skyrocketing and the industry was abuzz with the specter of major disruption. Apps were the shiny new object, and we seemed to be moving toward an increasingly digital world of books.
That anticipated digital dominance has yet to materialize.
The Nook never took off as the Kindle alternative — neither has the Kobo eReader, Google Books, or the iPad, although they all have their (relatively small) audiences. The industry average for digital sales is roughly 25 percent of all US book purchases. In the past year, many publishers reported declining digital sales while overall print sales are increasing. Publishers Weekly (Jan. 1, 2016) quotes a Nielsen BookScan report showing a 2.8 percent increase in 2015 print sales over 2014 on top of a 2.4 percent increase in 2013. Also according to PW, this is the first decline in e-book sales since the introduction of the Kindle in 2007. The technology infatuation may be ending, and younger readers are trending away from “e” and back to print.
Why haven’t e-book sales lived up to their promise? First of all, consumers and librarians still prefer print books. Similar to e-books, print books are portable and accessible, but they are also more tangible and have managed to maintain a higher perceived value. According to a recent School Library Journal survey, 51 percent of respondents reported that they expect e-book usage this year to be identical to last year. Sixty-one percent say that limited access to e-reading devices, whether at home or school, has been an impediment to e-book reading and purchasing, making e-books sometimes actually less accessible than print.
Another factor keeping print from going the way of the stegosaurus is that over the past few years, print book production prices have stabilized. Print-on-demand (POD) and short print runs are much more affordable than in 2011. Publishers are now able to keep many titles in stock that previously would have gone out of print.
The complexity of e-book format options is also likely a factor in print’s survival. Print books come in just two main formats: hardcover and paperback. There are many more options for digital books, especially for schools and libraries—single-user, multiuser, subscriptions, and pay-as-you-go. Circulation-wise, single-user e-books work exactly like print books. If a patron checks out one copy, others have to wait until that e-book is “returned.” Most school libraries prefer the unlimited multiuser model, where they purchase titles at a higher price than print and single-user e-books, but they have perpetual use for the entire building. There are also subscription offerings available from many publishers and aggregators like Epic!, and on-demand pay-as-you-go e-book lending services such as Brain Hive and Total Boox. The plethora of choices can be overwhelming to librarians.
Most e-book sales continue to be PDFs, while consumer and public library e-books sales are mostly in ePub and ePub3 formats — with and without audio. OverDrive, the largest e-book wholesaler to public libraries, reports that the majority of their US customers are looking for titles that will work on their phones and other mobile devices. Many suburban schools have adopted bring-your-own-device (BYOD) policies to help reduce the costs of purchasing laptops, tablets, or e-readers.
The multitude of platforms and formats can be frustrating for librarians. The dream of one easily accessible, universal platform that will house all e-books from every publisher and wholesaler seems remote. Most schools and libraries do not have the resources to purchase servers that can accommodate large e-book collections, and it is inconvenient to access titles separately from publishers’ individual sites. The closest option for librarians wanting one platform is to contract with a wholesaler providing that web- or cloud-based service, such as OverDrive, Baker & Taylor, and Bibliotheca (formerly 3M Cloud Library) on the public library side; and Follett and Mackin to school libraries.
While e-books have gained significant market share, they have yet to come close to surpassing print. According to the New York Times (Sept. 22, 2015), around 12 million e-reader devices were sold in 2014, a big decline from the 19-million-plus sold five years ago.
While e-books are apparently in no danger of repeating the CD-ROM fad of the 1990s, it is also clear that we will not see the demise of print any time soon. Print continues its strong dominance in the marketplace; its anticipated decline having been highly exaggerated. What is also clear is that at the current rate of technological advancements and unforeseen market shifts, that could certainly change in the future. With more format options available than at any time in history, publishers can reach their customers in the various ways they want to be reached. The best approach during this time of change is one customer at a time. Provide your customer with exactly what she or he needs. Make it all available, of course, in a cost-effective way, and let the market decide. It always does.
David Wexler is executive vice president of sales at Lerner Publishing Group in Minneapolis, Minnesota.