The future has arrived (in numbers)

For a long time, the question which has dominated publishing is Where does this stop? It’s been clear for some time that ebooks were going to account for a huge chunk of the market – but no one knew how big. My guess for some time has been that about 50% of book sales would be in print, about 50% electronic. The disaster scenario was always that as sales tipped increasingly towards ebooks, the economics of print-book publishing would simply fail as bookshops went out of business, print runs became shorter, prices increased and so on.

Fortunately, for we Brits, a model of the future has lain close at hand. The British market (ahead of the US in many aspects of online retail) has lagged the US market by about eighteen months in terms of the shift to ebooks. Which means what’s happening there today will be happening here in a year or two’s time.

And the latest data from the US shows that the adult fiction/non-fiction ebook market grew just 4.8% in the first half of this year. That’s still an increase, but it’s the low-single-digits increase of a basically mature market. And, as the smoke starts to clear, the picture looks like this. (Data from goodereader.com.)

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(Don’t you love it, by the way, that religious presses get their own special section? Somehow that’s an area where I think the UK market will not be following the US.)

So in broad terms, everyone wins. The adult trade market is split into broadly equal thirds between hardback, paperback and ebook. Ebooks constitutes the largest third, but there’s room there for all formats to co-exist in perfect contentment. The kids market has suffered in 2013 because the lack of a Hunger Games style hit, but in this territory the old magic of ink-on-a-page still beats edots-on-a-screen.

My own hunch that ebooks would take about 50% of the market is actually about right. First, there’s a little more growth to come. Secondly, the data above is by value. The lower prices of ebooks as against paperbacks and (especially) hardbacks, means that unit sales of ebooks are more like 50% than 30%.

In terms of implications for the industry, what’s most striking is that there haven’t been many implications at all. Publishers have managed the transition to a partially electronic world without huge disruption. The same Big Publishers still dominate the market. Yes, there are self-published bestsellers, but in any given week you’d expect 22 or more of the top 25 books to come via established publishers. The old machinery of literary agents, geographically-restricted book deals, conventional book-editing and all the rest is still very much in place.

Indeed, it’s in place even in areas where the new market is truly dominant. In North America, my crime novels make roughly 75% of their unit sales as ebooks. But I still use a regular publisher, a regular literary agent and so on, and it’s not occurred to me to switch. Why would I? I simply couldn’t achieve those sales, or a fraction of them, by working on my own. (For my tips on writing crime thrillers, go here. For info on agents for the genre, go here.)

At the same time, I’m not at all dissing the rise of the proper self-published author. By ‘proper’ I mean someone who (i) has written a decent book, (ii) has invested sensibly in editorial and copyediting work, (iii) has a reasonable understanding of digital publicity and a willingness to work hard at it, and (iv) is looking to make actual sales, not just to become top of the ‘free’ bestseller lists. I know such authors – the Writers Workshop has helped create some of them – and I’ve been monumentally impressed by their abilities, not just as authors, but as marshals of their own small-but-complex businesses. For sure, people like Tim O’Rourke have made more money and reached more readers by operating independently than they could have done by going through a conventional publisher. David Gaughran has also built up an impressive array of fiction and non-fiction ventures, which again would not have been possible in the same way by any conventional route.

And if the new market has made possible a greater variety of routes to success, it hasn’t changed the overall odds. It is still HARD to get published (or self-published) and shift enough copies to really launch a career. That’s not surprising: there are only so many readers out there. And it’s not bad news: writing good books is hard, and why would we want more mediocre ones?

In short, the new lesson is simply that the old lessons still apply. Write an incredibly good book. Then revise it until it’s even better. Then launch it, by whatever route works best for you and your subject matter – via agents if need be. It’s a hard game, but still a fun one.

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