Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.
Some of the biggest book industry events and trends of the past few years, including the closing of Borders bookstores, the rise in popularity of tablets and e-readers and the exponential growth in the number of ebooks (as well as of digital-only authors and publishers) could easily give the impression that print is becoming obsolete. But print matters—to both authors and readers.
The latest Pew Internet Research study found that e-reading is indeed on the rise but eclipsed by the continuing popularity of print. The percentage of American adults who read an ebook was 28% in 2014, up 11% since 2011. Still, that figure is small compared to the percentage who read a print book, 69% in 2014, only slightly fewer than the 71% who reported doing so in the 2011 sample. In other words, Americans are far more likely to read print than to read ebooks.
While ebooks are more popular among younger readers than older ones, the study did not find a corresponding lack of popularity for print. In fact, among the adults surveyed, the youngest cohort, age 18–29, was most likely to read a print book, with 79% reporting reading a print book in the past year.
And despite the focus in much current debate on authors’ earnings from digital sales, print is still a strong component of earnings for many traditionally published authors.
In the 2015 Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest Author Survey, digital sales accounted for the bulk of earnings for 78.9% of authors’ most recent indie-published books but for less than half, 43.6%, of authors’ most recent traditionally published books.
Traditionally published books with print runs far out-earned those distributed only in digital formats, with median earnings of $3,000–$4,999 for printed books and just $1–$499 for digital-only books. For self-published books, print did not seem to make a substantial contribution to earnings, with printed and digital-only books both earning a median of $1–499.
What’s more, distribution to physical retailers gave print earnings a boost for both traditionally published and indie-published titles alike. Only 54% of traditionally published books actually made it onto bookstore shelves, but those that did earned their authors a median of $5,000–9,999 across all platforms, compared to a median of $1–499 for printed books that were not sold in physical bookstores. Similarly, although the difference was not as large, self-published books in the sample that were sold in bookstores—only 12%—earned a median of $500–$999 compared to $1–499 for those that weren’t.
Beyond printing costs, distribution to bookstores can require a substantial resource outlay, including shipping books, paying for placement and even employing sales representatives to promote titles to bookstores. In all, 23.6% of the most recently published books by authors in the survey sample were sold in bookstores, with in-store availability and visibility of these books likely varying widely depending upon the author’s or the publisher’s investment and potential popular appeal.
While it’s impossible to know whether our sample is representative of authors on the whole, the trends in reading demographics that Pew uncovered indicate that print will continue to have a correspondingly strong readership, despite the growth of ebooks.
Shortly after the last holiday season, the UK bookseller Waterstones said that sales of Kindle devices have all but “disappeared,” an otherwise unsurprising finding that nonetheless went on to instigate a flurry of spurious headlines about the imminent death of ebooks and the revival of print.
While the ebook plateau shows few signs of kicking back into gear, it’s likely also the case that print will remain an important and potentially lucrative source of sales and income for authors—even if that doesn’t mean a reversal of the proportions some were lately heralding.
In the past, many authors dreamed of seeing their books in print and especially in bookstores. Many authors still do. Print distribution may turn out to be one area where publishers’ fixation on the wants of their readers aligns with the wants of their authors, a group publishers are only beginning to recognize as their customers, too.
Complete results and analysis from the 2015 Digital Book World and Writer’s Digest Author Survey is available here in a comprehensive report, The Author-Publisher Relationship in a Changing Market.