In 2011, I wrote a blog post titled, “The E-publishing Experiment.” This was at the very beginning of my ebook publishing journey, and at the time the hype over the future of ebooks was high. Several ebook authors had begun to make enough money to be noticed by the publishing industry. Bloggers all over the internet were encouraging new authors to jump on this ebook publishing bandwagon. While everyone held some nostalgia for the printed book, the idea was that the ebook tide, spurred by the Amazon Kindle, would just rise and rise and rise—until almost all versions of the printed book had been swept away.
This week, the Observer published an article entitled, “Are E-Books Finally Over? The Publishing Industry Unexpectedly Tilts Back to Print.”
I’m actually not surprised at a decline in ebooks sales, for several reasons:
The first is that the online hype over ebooks seemed to have died down.
The second is that my personal peak in sales was several years ago (though this is due to a variety of reasons), which supports the reports of a decline in sales.
The third is that every reader with a deep love of books that I talk to expresses their love of the printed version over ebooks. Ebooks are vaulted for their convenience while travelling, but not for the experience the reader has while using them. There are a few exceptions—I’ve heard of at least one pastor who actively promotes the advantages of ebooks. But I don’t know him personally.
The fourth is that I work in a library, and many readers express their frustration with incompatible ebook technologies. For example, in Canada you cannot check out library books on your Kindle. This is besides the technological complications that often come along with reading ebooks. Many, many ebook readers have no tech issues with their ebook reading—but many do, and troubleshooting their ebooks becomes a barrier to their use of their service.
- Further evidence of ebook decline is that the library used to lend out ereaders as well as ebooks, and this was initially so popular that the waiting list for these devices stretched out for months. Now the library has discontinued this service. This was partially due to the incompatible technologies most ereaders have—making it hard for multiple library patrons to use the same device—but it was also due to a reduced level of interest. A reduced level of interest could indicate that all the patrons bought their own device instead of getting it from the library, but I have not observed this to be the case.
The fifth is that ebook prices are usually not much cheaper than printed books. On one hand, this seems fair, since the author’s words have just as much value whether they are printed or displayed on a screen. But on the other hand, from a customer’s perspective—if the experience of reading an ebook is so greatly inferior to the reading the printed version, a customer can’t help but wish the price would reflect this fact. Unfortunately, there’s also a whole thriving network of websites ripping off ebook authors by publishing their work for free—and I assume a good number of readers flock to sites like these instead of paying $20 for words on the screen. Just a reality of life.
The sixth is that, sadly, interest in reading overall seems to be declining (see this New Yorker article for more information). This is backed up by what I know of library stats. While libraries remain immensely popular for other reasons, their rates of actual books or ebook checkouts as a whole are declining slightly every year.
I always maintained that the printed book would never die. I wanted the ebook to succeed to a certain extent, since I’d published several short stories in the ebook market, but even in 2012 I asserted that the worst case scenario was that printed books would be reduced to limited runs of high quality volumes. Physical book enthusiasts will always exist. I’m very glad that the market for printed books is still so healthy, and even gladder that independent bookstores appear to be doing well.
As for my prediction for the future—I believe the ebook industry will survive. In nonfiction, especially in academic areas, ebooks are incredibly useful since they are searchable. In fiction, ebooks are portable—many young people read ebooks on their phone. However, the fact that a reading culture is more easily constructed around physical books, especially when nurtured in the environment of an independent bookstore, leads me to put more emphasis on the physical book once again.
As I mentioned before, my sister and I collaborated on a physical, printed booklet this year, and I was incredibly pleased with how this was received. I hope, in the future, to do more with beautiful, physical, printed items. My work in electronic format will remain available, but stay tuned for more information on physical forms to come! And thank you to everyone for all your support during my many years of my publishing journey. I think we’ve all learned a lot!
Here’s a few posts I’ve published on ebooks, if you’re curious—I find it kind of fascinating to see my reflections on the ebook industry as it developed:
The E-Publishing Experiement (2011)
To end off with, I’m going to post an old infographic that a commenter posted on my blog in 2012—it’s fascinating to see the similarities and differences between the ebook industry then and now.