When publishers rejoice at the “failure” of the digital market, they aren’t actually celebrating the preservation of print: they’re reacting to the preservation of their market share as compared to the self-published industry. But print isn’t safe from the rise of the indie market, and it’s important for publishers to be prepared to compete where they have for so long dominated.
When tablets and the modern electronic book hit the publishing scene a decade ago, industry professionals suggested that ebooks sales would take a substantial share of the market (some claimed at least 50% by 2014).1 What they didn’t predict was that more than half of that new market would be dominated by the independent and self-publishing industry (hereafter referred to as the indie market).
The ways in which the traditional industry looks at data and the trends that data predicts has grown complicated. However, one thing is clear: digital is the purview of the indie market, and traditional publishers are struggling to maintain their market share, both in unit sales and revenue.
It’s no wonder then that, since early 2016, articles heralding the return of print sales and the decline of the ebook have given publishers and booksellers alike a reason to celebrate. With ebooks taking up only 18% of the total publishing market in Canada2 and a stagnant 23% in America,3 a market trend that suggests a worldwide return to print would mean publishers could blame an under-performing digital market as a reason to go back to doing what they’ve always been good at: publishing print books. Fortune Magazine’s digital editor, Andrew Nusca, relates some of why the traditional publishing industry celebrated the leveling out of the ebook market at the beginning of 2015:
Between 2008 and 2010, e-book sales skyrocketed 1,260%—a sign that the platform had matured and also a sign that it hadn’t quite gained traction up to that point. Amazon began shipping Kindles like mad. Barnes & Noble threw its hat into the e-reader ring. (A fateful decision, it turned out.) Print sales (especially for cheap paperbacks) slipped, bookstores large and small—but especially large—began to close up shop, and the entire publishing business was left shaking. A reprieve from that narrative is obviously welcome if you’re in the book business.4
Of course, it could be argued that there are specific reasons that the ebook market was willfully left to stagnate, but only some of those reasons are important for the scope of this essay.
Author Earnings, 2016.
The Situation Right Now
According to a report released by Author Earnings at the Digital Book World conference in January, 2017, the indie and Amazon Imprint ebook market accounted for 54% of total ebook sales in 2016.5 These numbers included ebooks sold through Amazon, iBooks, and other retailers that Author Earnings’s “spider” software could crawl for sales snapshots. Author Earnings itself admits that there are some limitations to the methodology for their quarterly reports (from which this data is compiled):
[E]ach of our quarterly snapshots, no matter how comprehensive, is only an X-Ray of the US ebook market at that exact moment. It’s what’s called a cross-sectional study. Like a freeze frame photo, it can only tell us how the ebook market is faring as a whole, rather than predicting the future prospects of any particular author along any particular publishing path. […] each data set can only tell us how each individual author’s books happen to be selling at that precise instant in time.
The picture painted by each quarterly report, taken on its own, is thus necessarily incomplete.
They tell us nothing about the consistency of those individual authors’ earnings over time.6
However, despite the “incompleteness” of the data, there are some trends, when taken with the contextual history of how the market has adapted to include self-publishing over time, that can help predict where the next big upset in the publishing landscape might occur.
Bodice Rippers and Coloring Books
Author Earnings, 2016. (Pink circles added)
The outliers of the publishing industry have a story to tell about what gets printed and what doesn’t.
Author Earnings says that Adult Fiction has moved online, but a majority of this is because of the booming romance category, which runs differently from the rest of the fiction market to begin with.7 Romance is also one of the many indie market’s digital-first genres, where authors test the reception of their work in ebook format first, before adding on a print edition. (The difference with romance being that the “insatiable readers” of romance will often buy a book twice to support the author, with whom they often have access to through author-moderated fan communities.)
Author Earnings reports that the other major outlier, coloring books, which sold almost 12 million copies in 20158 and 14 million in 2016,9 have not only shifted heavily into the indie market sector (with indie authors making up 60% of the market share), they’ve also stayed in print.
Author Earnings, 2016.
The magnitude of this trend should not be overlooked, especially when thinking about the future of the print market. In comparison to other types of books, coloring books have the fewest barriers to publication. There is little to no editing skill required, minimal production (layout, typography, and color printing knowledge are unnecessary), and anyone with basic knowledge of Word and PDF creation can make a book as professional as Penguin Random House in half the time. More importantly, the audience for these books care very little about who published it, so long as it fulfills their reasons for purchasing it. Most importantly, authors within the indie market can competitively price their books with the click of a button, undercutting their competition in much the same way that Amazon has been undercutting brick-and-mortar stores since 1994.
Print Isn’t “Safe” from the Self-Publishing Industry
Looking at the data, it is easy to see that the ebook market is dominated by indie publishers and will continue to be so—but with that comes the assumption that the print industry, while shrinking or stable, will remain firmly in the realm of traditional publishers. I argue that isn’t the case. The demand for self-published print books is growing,10 and will only continue to do so. Once the accessibility of print services open up in the same ways ebook technology did, a surge similar to what happened with digital publishing will occur on the print side of the industry.
I am not arguing that indie authors will (or won’t) overtake traditional publishers in the print market; rather, that it is short-sighted to assume that there won’t be a point in time at which those authors won’t be competing with traditional presses by taking up a larger slice of a shrinking pie. And, should traditional publishers not gain the sort of flexibility that they failed to exhibit throughout the growth of the digital market, they may find themselves not only unable to depend on title P&Ls for their business decisions, but repeatedly being challenged by the innovative spirit the indie market has demonstrated throughout their domination of the digital market.
However, there are a couple of issues that stand in the way of the indie market’s ability to compete within the print industry:
- Bookstores, libraries, and other stores that carry books have not yet shifted their policies regarding independently-published books. It is a fact taken for granted that the publishing industry is a consignment industry, and until a POD printer allows returns, or bookstores revoke their demand that a book be returnable (a pipe dream), indie authors will have to struggle, case-by-case, to be stocked on shelves.
- The technology that makes print paperbacks and print hardcover versions of books are not all that accessible to indie authors. By this, I mean that the software have high barriers to entry in the realms of functionality, costs, and flexibility.
Independent Bookstores on the Rise
Selling books in a brick-and-mortar store is fundamentally different from selling a book online. Chain brick-and-mortar stores are like Starbucks, the same no matter where you go. That homogeneity may be the reason sales are depressed, because there’s no reason to browse if every bookstore you go to has the same featured books that Amazon and other online retailers are carrying—and carrying at a much deeper discount.
One of the reasons that indie bookstores are on the rise may be because they bring flexibility and ingenuity back into the mix. Local communities care about whether their store survives. Titles feel handpicked and employees seem to have a more personalized touch when handselling.11 Independent bookstores still play a major role in deciding bestsellers. While some of this may be a collective narrative and no more, a narrative is more than powerful enough to make an idea succeed. And an environment that values locality and autonomy is an environment where indie authors can excel.
Hardcover and print unit sales for traditional publishers in 2016 were around 790 million. (Author Earnings, 2016). For self-publishers who have consistently been outselling and outearning traditionally published authors in the Amazon ebook market, print unit sales in the same year were closer to 22 million. The gap is clear. However, if print technologies through Createspace and Ingram become more accessible and fair, there’s no reason to think this won’t change. Despite the sound argument by Alison Strobel in her essay “Self-Publishing’s Limits”—regarding the need for distribution centers, warehouses, and upfront monetary investments the indie market will need in order to succeed in the print sector12—there is evidence to suggest that the market is leaning the other way: indie stores have a long tradition of hosting local author books and events, and Barnes & Noble is one of the few and notable chain bookstores that does the same. It may even be that, despite Barnes & Nobles’s questionable business decisions in the last few years, its flexibility in working with the indie communities is one of the reasons it has been surviving.13
Show Me the Money
Print remains the place where publishers receive the largest profit margin, even for POD printing. Traditional publishers sell less units of ebooks, but earn more revenue overall from each sale due to higher pricing structures. At first glance, it seems that many indie authors sell not only more units but earn more revenue, but the low price points for ebooks mean that many authors earn less than $500 a year.14
Sample print royalty rate for the book “Darkly Never After,” a self-published anthology.
While an indie author will rarely have the advantage of bulk pricing for larger print runs, they will still see more from the sale of a $14.99 print book than a $2.99 ebook (the current median for ebook and print pricing in the indie market).
Sample ebook royalty rate.
In addition, an indie author can undercut many traditional publishers in the print arena as print books for both paperback and hardcover have been steadily climbing.15 So long as the quality from one matches the quality of another, consumers won’t care. What happened to bookstores when Amazon reset the entire industry’s price point expectations will happen again, except this time with indie print books in opposition to traditionally-published print books on retail (and online) shelves. And with Amazon increasingly marketing its own imprints where it dominates online retail channels, this trend will only continue.
School Library Journal, 2016.
In 2008, at the height of IngramSpark’s print-on-demand reign, Amazon, which had recently acquired a POD printer called BookSurge, made a startling demand: if publishers wished to have their POD books carried by Amazon, they would have to use BookSurge, or their “BUY” buttons would be removed. Within a month, an antitrust lawsuit was filed against the online retail giant by small POD publisher BookLocker. The lawsuit would last two years and $300,000 in lawyer fees for the owners of BookLocker, but Amazon was forced to settle (and pay the lawyers). Not long after, Amazon rebranded BookSurge as CreateSpace, which is now one of, if not the largest POD printer for indie authors on the market. Ironically, despite its antagonistic history with Lightning Source/Ingram, it now relies on its competitor to make its Expanded Distribution Channels possible (an optional service on CreateSpace that makes a book published on Amazon “available” to bookstores and other retail outlets). Meanwhile, Ingram tends to market itself to established mid-sized and small or micro presses, leaving the bulk of the indie market to Amazon’s discretion. There are other competitors, such as Smashwords and Lulu, but it’s hard to argue Amazon’s power when it comes to being able to print a book, upload an ebook, and distribute it to a massive consumer base all on one platform—and now, with the introduction of KDP Print, all on one website.
If You Build It They Will Print It
Traditional publishers have been slow to adopt XML workflows, a process that would arguably speed up the entire publication process and transform production into a lean, efficient, metadata-rich system. Self-publishers, on the other hand, who aren’t indoctrinated by old standards of the publishing industry and prioritize digital-first environments to test out what is and isn’t enjoyed by their base, are primed to adopt XML with little resistance. Roadblocks to independent publishing in the past have included clunky and confusing PDF submission guidelines (in many ways necessitating access to Adobe products, which largely are only accessible through monthly subscription models—a system with little value proposition to an individual not planning to use the software more than 1 or 2 times a year). Guidelines for places like Ingram or Lightning Source run 30 to 40 pages; an overwhelming and confusing process for most indie authors.
However, last month, Amazon rolled out KDP Print, which, while in beta, seems to answer the frustrations long-expressed by the indie community by offering a way to turn their ebooks into a paperback—much like an XML workflow. This (along with companies like Draft2Digital, which make the process of formatting a book as simple as uploading a common document type), will facilitate the future of the indie market’s printing boom.
In the end, it is an oversight to assume that indie authors are only in the digital realm because that is where they want to be. In fact, many authors desire print versions of their work, and it is the technological capability alone that stands in their way.16 While in the early 2000s, this set indie authors up to be taken advantage of by predatory vanity presses like Author Solutions, in recent years, support communities like SFWA’s Writer Beware and Absolute Write have banded together on the shared desire to accredit publishing service providers both big and small.
KDP Print: Amazon is Moving In on Production
Earlier this year, Amazon unveiled a new service for its indie authors: KDP Print. In effect, this service gives a much needed facelift and UI improvements to CreateSpace. One of the most notable and massive changes is the marrying of ebook and print production under one URL (and therefore, one user account). All of the functionality of CreateSpace remains, except Amazon is flipping the traditional publishing process on its head: start with digital, then move to print.
This logically makes a great deal of sense. Amazon’s massive self-publisher market is already familiar (and loyal to) Kindle Direct Publishing, and the use of the similar interface takes away a lot of the confusion and mistrust with CreateSpace’s clunky and outdated interface. Gone are the pixelated instructional menus—authors can now glide through the print process as easily as uploading a Word or PDF document, and correct errors that CreateSpace would normally flag. In the past, platforms like Amazon Advantage and CreateSpace separated the two production processes for books so much that, for some authors, it was simply not worth the trouble.
What does it mean for KDP to now be offering print? In addition to a single space within which to view sales data for both print and ebooks, preorders may soon be on the table, a functionality Amazon added to KDP for ebooks a couple of years ago. Expect that indie authors will respond positively and aggressively to that change.
As barriers for self-published authors continue to diminish in making a product that rivals traditionally-published books, the lines between the two industries will further blur. If the traditional presses do not actively reflect on the aspects of their businesses that failed to make them competitive in certain digital genres, they can expect that when the print “boom” happens (and it will), that expansion for indies will be coming out of their own market share. With the state of the publishing industry already so precarious (especially in the United States and Canada), the upset could be far-reaching and intense. It isn’t about digital vs. print. It isn’t even about online vs. brick-and-mortar. It’s about two very different industry models vying for the same market, and as the digital realm has shown, consumers don’t prefer one over another—they just want good content.
1. Flood, Alison. “Ebook Sales Pass Another Milestone.” The Guardian, April 15, 2011, sec. Books. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/apr/15/ebook-sales-milestone.
2. “Canadian Publishing in 2016: A Review.” BookNet Canada. Accessed March 25, 2017. http://www.booknetcanada.ca/blog/2017/1/30/canadian-publishing-in-2016-a-review.
3. “E-Book Share of Total Consumer Book Sales in the U.S. 2009-2015 | Statistic.” Statista. Accessed March 25, 2017. https://www.statista.com/statistics/190847/ebook-share-of-total-consumer-book-sales-in-the-us-till-2015/.
4. Nusca, Andrew. “Print Books Are far from Dead. But They’re Definitely on the Decline.” Fortune, September 24, 2015. http://fortune.com/2015/09/24/print-books-ebook-sales/.
5. “Print vs Digital, Traditional vs Non-Traditional, Bookstore vs Online: 2016 Trade Publishing by the Numbers” Author Earnings. Accessed March 25, 2017. http://authorearnings.com/report/dbw2017/.
6. “Individual Author Earnings Tracked across 7 Quarters, Feb. 2014 – Sept. 2015.” Author Earnings. Accessed March 25, 2017. http://authorearnings.com/report/individual-author-earnings-tracked-across-7-quarters-feb-2014-sept-2015/.
7. Ha, Thu-Huong. “Maverick Women Writers Are Upending the Book Industry and Selling Millions in the Process.” Quartz. Accessed March 25, 2017. https://qz.com/711924/maverick-women-are-upending-the-book-industry-and-selling-millions-in-the-process/.
8. “2015 U.S. Book Industry Year-End Review.” Nielsen. Accessed March 25, 2017. http://www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/reports/2016/2015-us-book-industry-year-end-review.html.
9. “Is the Adult Coloring Book Trend Coming to an End?” Time. Accessed March 25, 2017. http://time.com/4689069/coloring-book-bubble-bursts/.
10. “Technology: Self-Publishing – From Blog to Book: How Self-Publishers Yearn for Print.” Print Week, no. 18. Journal Article (2012).
11. “Read All about It: Print Might Be on Rise but Book Sale Figures Incomplete.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Accessed March 21, 2017. http://www.post-gazette.com/ae/books/2017/02/05/Read-all-about-it-print-might-be-on-rise-but-book-sale-figures-incomplete/stories/201702050052?pgpageversion=pgevoke.
12. “Self-Publishing’s Limits.” Thinkubator: R&D at Publishing @ SFU. PUB800, December 9, 2015. https://tkbr.publishing.sfu.ca/pub800/2015/12/self-publishings-limits/.
13. McIlroy, Thad. “B&N to Sell Self-Published Books In Stores.” Book Business, July 8, 2016. http://www.bookbusinessmag.com/post/interesting-twist-bn-sell-self-published-books/.
14. Flood, Alison. “Stop the Press: Half of Self-Published Authors Earn Less than $500.” The Guardian, May 24, 2012, sec. Books. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/may/24/self-published-author-earnings.
15. SLJ. “SLJ’s Average Book Prices for 2016.” School Library Journal. Accessed March 25, 2017. http://www.slj.com/2016/03/research/sljs-average-book-prices-for-2016/.
16. Rich, Motoko. “As Publishers Cut Back, Self-Publishing Booms Print-on-Demand Houses Make Money on Books That Sell Almost No Copies.” International Herald Tribune, January 29, 2009, 4 edition, sec. Finance. http://global.factiva.com/redir/default.aspx?P=sa&an=INHT000020090129e51t0000s&cat=a&ep=ASE.