Electronic Books, Amazon, and the Fate of Print, 2005-2015.


“E-Book Sales Slip, and Print Is Far From Dead,” an article about the book industry, shared the front page of The New York Times (23 September 2015) with the visit of Pope Francis. The author of the article, Alexandra Alter, reminded us that only five years previously, pundits were proclaiming the demise of print books. Sales of Kindle readers, Nooks, iPads, various other electronic devices, and books in the electronic format were soaring.

Surprise! E-book sales have fallen by 10% in the first five months of this year over the same period last year (quoting from the NYT article). And e-book sales have not been increasing in recent years (2005 to 2015) at anywhere near the same rate as they had in the earlier half of the period.

The impact of the electronic format on print books (mass paper, trade paper, and hard) has varied with format and category. The mass paperback format (the old ‘pocket book’) has been the most affected, by far. Print editions of mass paperback genre fiction, particularly romances but also mysteries, thrillers, science fiction & fantasy, suffered most from competition with e-books. Hardback fiction was also adversely affected. Less so, non-fiction, and less so, kids’ books.

When they first came on the market, electronic books were presented as a godsend to travelers who didn’t want print books weighing down their luggage. The chains that run bookstores at airports, however, are reporting that print books are regaining traction with travelers.

Other arguments. Lighter to hold, they would suit people who read in bed and would like to snuggle up to a Kindle. Some thought electronic books a boon to the industry because they would entice a new group of book buyers.

There were two trends worrying publishers. Rising expectations for the future of e-book and Kindle sales, they worried, would discourage print editions. It was not so much that print sales were off dramatically, but publishers noted that print was losing market share to electronic. They also worried about the fact that the book business was increasingly concentrated in one mail-order operation, Amazon.com.

Publishers had welcomed Amazon as a solution to their fledgling direct sales efforts. But Amazon began to acquire an ever-growing share of print sales and then almost immediately 65% of the electronic book market. They soon woke up to a world where one dominant retailer could dictate the prices it paid publishers for the e-books, their retail price, and hence the publishers’ margins. The older arrangement of the publisher setting a “suggested retail price” that included a fair return for themselves but also for the wholesaler and retailer was being remodeled. When negotiating price structures with Amazon, it has been generally a “take it or leave it” proposition.

Meanwhile, Amazon has begun selling all kinds of other merchandise, and the books’ share of its revenue is shrinking.  Amazon.com has become less dependent on book publishers just when book publishers were more dependent on Amazon.

Publishers Weekly recently celebrated the contribution that Amazon.com has made to the world of book retailing (”20 Years of Amazon.com Bookselling,” PW  7 September 2015).  The retailer was given a good part of the credit for creating best-sellers for the industry. The article provided a list of Amazon’s 20 all-time bestsellers. But the books on the list were titles that any brick-and-mortar book store would have sold well in that same 20 years!

Other achievements of Amazon’s first 20 years. The Kindle, introduced in 2007, was a significant contribution. However, their self-publishing platform Kindle Direct Publishing, rolled out in that same year, entered an already well-established and crowded field. Textbook rentals, another listed achievement, had long been around by the time Amazon entered the market (2012). There were numerous subscription services when it got around to launching its own last year. The pattern is that Amazon enters a competitive market dominated by mostly startup companies and soon gains its usual “tight grip” on the sector, forcing out competitors (see “Digital Comics” Publishers Weekly 10 August 2015).

Readers have always availed themselves of ‘gatekeepers,’ beginning with acquisition departments of publishing houses. Gatekeepers determine the array of titles that are made available to a book-buying public. Traditional gatekeepers closer to the consumer include brick-and-mortar booksellers, libraries – and now websites including this one. Goodreads.com, a popular web site and definitely a gatekeeper, has been, wouldn’t you know it, recently bought by Amazon.

Well then, who are the winners and losers of this rise of Amazon, the e-book “explosion,” and now its contraction? The presence of small publishing houses probing the “nooks and crannies” of readership for publishing opportunities is still inspiring. There will always be entrants and exits, but this sector of the industry remains remarkably vibrant. Also, mid-sized book publishers and the conglomerates are adding warehouse space and promising faster delivery to their book store customers. They seem optimistic.

Local book stores lost big time, though they may be returning to discerning communities. The resilience of print is giving them opportunity. The American Booksellers Association reports an uptick in membership over the last five years. And wouldn’t you know it, Amazon Books has just opened its first brick-and-mortar store in Seattle, with more to come.

The group that seems to have suffered most from the e-book bubble has been authors. Authors Guild recently released a membership survey, and the median income of its membership is down significantly over the last five years of the decade. According to its report in Publishers Weekly (21 September 2015), full-time book authors’ incomes are down by 30% comparing 2009 with 2014, and part-time authors’ income by 38%. There are several causes discussed in the article. The decline of brick-and-mortar bookstores has been a factor. Certainly authors are receiving fewer royalties on e-book sales than was the case with print books. Authors, it appears, have been shouldering a good chunk of the cost of Amazon’s discounting.

Thanks to Publishers Weekly and The New York Times. Both diligently read and much admired.






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