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E-books’ Effects on Print Book Sales, Part 1

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An IBPA Roundtable

E-books’ Effects on Print Book Sales, Part 1

This periodical has been covering e-books for at least 11 years and 10 months. I’m sure about that because the June 2000 issue surfaced when I was reorganizing files the other day, and that issue includes an article by Pat Bell about “one of the past decade’s most exciting developments” for writers and independent publishers—“the electronic or e-book.”

Otherwise, it’s not easy to be sure of anything about e-books.

For instance, we’ve heard a lot about skyrocketing e-book sales and a lot of predictions for continued growth, but lately we’ve also heard that sales are leveling off, even at the big companies whose data dominate the available statistics; and we’ve heard that more than half the consumers polled for a recent study said they are “not at all likely” to buy an e-reader in the coming year, a number that’s on the rise.

The same study—the Verso Digital 2011 Survey of Book-Buying Behavior—notes that “the maintenance and nurturing of a diversified retail ecosystem (indies, chains and online) is a matter of business necessity because it mirrors consumers’ preferences” (see versoadvertising.com/DBWsurvey2012).

Whatever the overall figures really are at this point and wherever they may be heading, we’re going to keep sharing real-world experience from IBPA members.

The reports that follow focus largely on whether e-book sales are cannibalizing sales of traditional books or, conversely, whetting readers’ appetites for reading material in various formats, or, possibly, having little or no effect on sales of print-on-paper editions.

More reports will appear next month. Thanks to everybody who responded to the “E-book eating habits” invitation.

—Judith Appelbaum

Different Readers, Different Outreach

Our e-books and print books seem to sell to rather different markets. In some cases, one edition helps sell the other; usually it’s the e-book helping sell the print book. So we see no financial disincentive to selling e-books.

Right now e-book sales are about $11,000 a year, roughly 3 percent of our total sales. Last year they were about $3,700, roughly 0.9 percent of the total. Our print book sales have held steady over the same period.

At present, we do electronic books because they make our authors happy, not because they are profitable, and we issue an electronic edition of every book if that is possible. We’ve found that, come contract time, almost every author asks about e-books, and authors are always happy to find that the contract deals with them.

We do all the e-book work in-house instead of outsourcing it. It takes time, but it makes much more sense economically, at least in the short term.

Because I use the production files from our print books to facilitate e-book conversions, our print books subsidize our electronic books to some extent.

We have found that what sells an e-book doesn’t necessarily sell the print version. To market an e-book properly, our authors need to do blog tours, podcasts, and other electronic marketing. Authors who push the print book assuming it will sell the e-book generally aren’t as successful as the authors who do e-book marketing in addition to print book marketing.


For the first time, some of our authors are receiving more in royalties for the electronic versions of their books than for the print versions. For instance, Cynthia Kraack, author of Ashwood and Minnesota Cold, has done a number of blog tours and podcasts, and the activity is reflected in her royalty statements.

Here at North Star, we believe that the print book will not go out of fashion. We’re book lovers and assume that our customers are as well. That being said, e-book sales are becoming an increasingly important part of our business, and we owe it to our customers to produce the best product possible.

Brandon Paumen

North Star Press


Purchase History Insights

I’m sure every book has a different story, but here’s a brief summary of my experience.

My 369-page paperback—Is It You, Me, or Adult A.D.D.? Stopping the Roller Coaster When Someone You Love Has Attention Deficit Disorder—was published in September 2008. The Kindle version came out in April 2011. Sales of the two versions are pretty much neck and neck. The Nook edition is catching up.

The book is a comprehensive guide to recognizing, understanding, and dealing with the challenges of adult ADHD. Though it directly addresses the needs of the partners of adults with ADHD, it is also a guide for those adults themselves.

Once it’s read in full for the narrative, the book also serves as a reference, with key pages to share with loved ones, physicians, therapists, and the like. as well as pages for recording notes. A PDF version comes free with the book when people buy it at its Web site.

Because I moderate an online support group for people in my target audience, I often hear about purchase history. It typically starts with a Kindle sale and then migrates to the paperback. Also common: The reader purchases and reads the paperback (often after reading a library copy) and buys the Kindle version for his or her partner with ADHD.

For many adults with ADHD, speed is of the essence; they don’t want to wait for the book to arrive to start reading, so the Kindle is perfect.

In summary, my book is well served by many formats. An audio version has just debuted, and it’s been appreciated by people with ADHD who are not fond of reading (often because ADHD symptoms can interfere).

Gina Pera

1201 Alarm Press


A Lift from Lending

I have been selling 14 to 20 copies a month of Am I Really Hungry? 6th Sense Diet: Intuitive Eating through Kindle. Possibly because my book is a reference book, hardcopy sales are consistent with e-book sales. I believe the Kindle lending library, which pays me about $1.20 every time the e-book is loaned out, has increased sales.

Jane Bernard

Transitions Press


Sticking with Print Until . . .

I have been writing and publishing books for stamp collectors and hobbyists since 1969. They sell well through relevant special-interest catalogs and magazines, and most of them are heavily illustrated.

So far, I have opted not to do e-books, partly because of the facts just mentioned, partly because of piracy concerns voiced by other publishers, and partly because I am not sure the market has shaken out yet. Being an old-time publisher, I’m not overly concerned about chasing every last buck if it might possibly impair my future options.

So right now, I’m sitting on the sidelines and waiting for the process to mature.

Steve Datz

General Trade Corp.


Improving Entrée to Media and Stores

E-books have been a nice adjunct to our traditional book sales. We’ve been offering e-books for about a year with minimal sales so far, but it’s always fun to see money coming in from Apple! We’ve spent enough money with them; it’s about time we get some of it back.

We sell about one e-book to every 12 to 14 paperback books (mind you, we sell only cookbooks). But I think offering e-books has helped us get press (media people always ask whether we offer e-books as well as print books), and they give us access to more retailers. Our books are now carried by several online e-book-only stores.

Amy Reiley

Life of Reiley


Seen in a Midsize House

Here are a few anecdotal observations, from the point of view of a midsize trade publisher.

Big-picture items:

• We have seen no reduction in print sales since 2009, when we started e-publishing proactively.

• We have not seen evidence that e-books catalyze many print sales, even though we almost always

insert a “Where to Buy in Print” page in each e-book.

• The customarily low prices of e-books do not appear to suppress prices of tree-books. When we raised

prices of several popular paperbacks in 2011, they continued to sell briskly in spite of the availability

of affordable e-book editions.

• We see no correlation between the price of an e-book and its sales; popular e-book titles seem to sell

briskly even at $12.99 to $19.99. Less popular e-book titles don’t sell well even at 99 cents. Our

impression is that buying decisions are based mostly on topic, rather than price.

• We budget only about $100 for converting a 200-page PDF file for a simple text-based book to EPUB

format, and that number also covers submission to e-tailer(s), entry of metadata, and so on. When

we work with a clean manuscript in Word format, we spend even less.

Random observations, but possibly noteworthy:

• The art of book design seems to be suffering as a result of e-books. We devote meaningful amounts of time and money to make our books look good in print. When they’re released as e-books, one click by the reader can change the layout completely, often with less pleasing results. This fosters an inclination to focus on aspects of design that make a book more likely to reflow without hassles across screens of various sizes and shapes.

When a publisher anticipates the eventual publication of an e-book following a tree-book, there’s a tendency to “dumb down” the design of the tree-book, knowing in advance that the text is almost certain to render less elegantly on a screen, no matter how good it looks on paper. The result can be an impulse to oversimplify the layout in print. To me, a lowest-common-denominator approach to designing print books seems sad, but possibly inevitable when the reader, rather than the book designer, controls the typeface, font size, orientation, and other aspects of on-screen presentation.

• E-book pricing conventions seem to be coalescing in the $2.99 to $9.99 range. But aren’t some e-books worth more than their printed counterparts? Imagine a travel guide that uses a smartphone’s GPS capability to highlight nearby attractions for the reader. Or more simply, imagine yourself a traveler lost on a busy street corner in Timbuktu. Do you really want to haul out a travel guide that says “I’m a tourist, rob me!” or would you rather just glance casually at your smartphone? This is only one scenario in which the e-book is probably worth more than the tree-book. There are many others, but the question is: Will the public pay a higher price for the added value?

• In the future, releasing e-books before their printed counterparts may help us learn which books we have audiences for and which we would be wise to abandon before investing heavily in design, setup with printers, trade distribution, and the rest of the traditional publication process.

• Free e-books seem to “sell” like hotcakes but lose popularity if payment becomes necessary, even if the price is only 99 cents, $1.99, or $2.99. (It’s important to add that Amazon’s royalty structure favors prices from $2.99 to $9.99.) We see little evidence that freebies catalyze sales of printed books or e-books that aren’t free.

• E-book “lending” programs are currently controversial. We think many publishers overstate the downside, since (a) lending programs are optional; (b) publishers get part of a royalty pool for “borrowed” e-books; (c) borrowers are limited to one freebie per month; and (d) borrowers must return last month’s freebie before they can get a new one. A lot of industry buzz seems to overlook these comforting facts.

• Clearly, a titanic struggle is shaping up among Amazon, Apple, and Google. For the professional publisher, important factors to consider in choosing a camp include how many technical hurdles the vendor requires the publisher to clear, and whether the vendor is likely to make unilateral changes down the road, as Apple did when it opened the iBookstore.

These issues are painful for those of us who are trying to establish workflows to handle significant numbers of titles over several years.

To close on an upbeat note: Since last year, our e-book business has started to generate meaningful revenues, month after month—with little impact on print sales. Our impression is that the e-book customer and the tree-book customer are usually not the same person. We want to attract them both, and we regard growing e-book revenues as extra income from existing material that isn’t terribly difficult or expensive to publish in digital form.

Danny O. Snow

Unlimited Publishing LLC

and SmartiBooks.com


Bottom Line

In 2011 we converted our most popular title for the Nook and the Kindle. So far, less than 1 percent of sales originate from the e-book conversion.

Richard E. Carmen

Auricle Books


Believing in a Blend

I still love the feel, the smell, the touch of real books and am encouraged to keep printing them to sell.

I put many of my stories into printed form on my Web site for viewing. I get a lot of daily hits on my Web site from people who read those stories. I get invitations to tell stories at schools, libraries, churches, and festivals after people view my site. The speaking engagements give me a platform to sell more of my books and audio CDs.

That leads me to think there is room in the world for both electronic books and ye olde books. While I seek ways to enter the world of e-books, I will do my best to continue to write regular books, print them, and work to sell them. I hope to find a nice combination of blending the old world and the new.

Mike Lockett

Michael Lockett Storyteller


The Holiday Surge

My monthly sales seem to alternate, title by title, between print up/e-book down and e-book up/print down. So maybe one influences the other?

I also noticed a definite uptick in print sales for November/December, and it’s been suggested that even people who read e-books like to give print books as gifts. And I saw a definite uptick in e-book sales immediately after Christmas, accounted for by all those whose gifts included e-readers.

One week before Christmas, I made a new e-book title available for Amazon’s KDP Select, and it had 596 downloads between Christmas and New Year’s Day, so I think that was good timing!

Leila Joiner

Imago Press

#1 in Two Formats

My small, one-man operation released Across the Fence: Expanded Edition in March 2011 in hardcover. The next month, it released a Kindle edition. From then through July, e-book sales increased while sales of the hardcover dipped.

By Christmas, I had approximately 1,000 sales of the hardcover, priced at $24.95, and 10,000 sales of the Kindle edition, priced at $3.29.

As I write, Across the Fence is #1 in the Vietnam/military category at Amazon, both as an e-book and as a hardcover in that small esoteric category, and the e-book is #3 in military/spy category.

I’ve been amazed by, and of course pleased with, the e-book sales bump, and thankful for it, as it’s allowed me to clean up some debts. If we sell out the original press run on the hardcover, I’ll do a cost analysis to see if it’s worth printing more.

John Stryker Meyer

SOG Chronicles/SOG Publishing


A Great Big Open Question

I’ve been wondering what portion of the e-book market indie publishers actually get.

Judging by my conversations with lots of folks who use e-readers, most e-books they read are bestsellers. Occasionally, I find a few people who tell me they get nonbestsellers and free downloads, but they say they will also pick up a bestseller or two.

Based on my informal survey and some data in Shelf Awareness and elsewhere, I’m guessing that 80 to 85 percent of all e-book trade sales are sales of bestsellers from the six big publishing houses that dominate the bestseller lists.

So here’s my question: What’s left for the indies? It can’t be much, especially since whatever is left is split among indies and self-publishers.

Does anybody have an answer?

Rudy Shur

Square One Publishers


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