The Ebook Is Dead, Long Live the Ebook

Last month, I attended Book Summit, an annual conference in Toronto for people in the book trade – publishers, editors, writers, the whole lot.

I’ve been a handful of times, and as a writer it’s not always terribly useful. Hearing about what the content producers are worried about is of interest, of course, but there isn’t much direct knowledge I can take from this day of keynotes and panels. But it’s still interesting and the whole day is very well produced.

I admit I didn’t look too closely at the materials they provided in advance, and I think a lot of the theme was outlined there. So I wasn’t ready for the opening remarks by Cynthia Good – formerly president and editorial director at Penguin Books, and founder of the publishing program at Humber College.

Let’s back up before I get to my point. Book Summit is put on by the Book and Periodical Council, an organization I have extremely high regard for. I have worked directly with members of their board and administrative staff, and these people are among the best people in the writing world in Canada.

But the BPC represents big publishers. And big publishers are so scared about the massive changes sweeping the publishing world that they have no idea at all what to do. Nobody knows what to do. We’re all hanging on, trying to stay in the car as it careers off a cliff.

The Digital Dust Has Settled

Here was the opening statement that Cynthia Good made, the very first words uttered into a mic at the conference:

The digital dust has settled. The book is back.

The rationale for this statement? E-book sales have plateaued, and print book sales are edging up.

The publishers are assuming that this means that things are going back to the old ways. They don’t need to worry; things have gotten as bad as they’re ever going to, and we can go back to our old business model. The ebook revolution that had thrown the publishing world into a tailspin is now over.

They could not be more wrong.

The Print Book Anomaly

Remember when Sudoku was all the rage, back in the early 2000s? There were thousands of sudoku book published, with their clever themes and attractive covers and different skill levels. A huge boon to publishers–people were addicted to the puzzles, and sudoku was a great way to spend a boring train or subway ride.

They’re still out there, of course, but in much smaller numbers. The fad passed, and I’d wager more people are playing sudoku on their phones than packing a book and pencil for their morning commute.

Sudoku was a publishing blip. And last year it was repeated, in the colouring book.

The colouring book for adults was a huge craze in 2015. The colouring book made millions of people put their phones down in favour of their markers and pencil crayons. They are a tactile, spatial, and sensory experience. They come bundled with an appealing call back to one’s childhood.

And most amazingly, there is no digital adjunct. Colouring books have to be physically printed. An amazing boon to publishers who have the resources to deal with large-scale print publication!

They are a fad, though, and they won’t be around forever. They’re still all over the place, but in a year’s time I suspect they’ll be taking up about as much space on the shelf as sudoku books do now.

So a one-time blip in printed books led to a small increase in print sales last year. The print book isn’t dead, but one year does not make a trend.

In the meantime, what about the ebook? The publishers are seeing their ebook sales taper off, and they’re now in a plateau. What’s up with that?

The Ebook Isn’t Over

The big publishers are seeing their ebook sales decline, and their print book sales increase. So the day of the ebook is over; cancel the alarm. All is well. Right?

The new publishing model is about to devastate the big publishers, and they don’t even see it yet.

They’re blindered by their own success, by having a century of being the only game in town. So they’re not asking, if the ebook sales are slowing down for them, where are those sales going?

If colouring books are indeed the reason for the rise in print book sales last year, then ebook sales aren’t going to print. Are people just giving up on ebooks?

No. People are still buying and reading ebooks.

They’re just not reading the books that publishers are giving them.

Self-publishing is the culprit. On Amazon, at least a third of the ebook sales are self-published books, and that proportion is rising.

Meanwhile, publishers are pegging ebook prices to the hardcover prices, then the trade paperback, then the mass market paperback. They claim that the costs of the print and distribution process are so well-established and amortized that they do not significantly affect the ebook price.

This, of course, comes across to most buyers as a transparent lie. And confronted with the choice between a $21.99 ebook from an established author and a $2.99 ebook by a self-published author with hundreds of five-star reviews – well, the choice is becoming clearer and clearer.

Time to Wake Up

I remember hearing a podcast by Michael Stackpole several years ago, where he pretended to be walking through a disused book warehouse, his steps echoing loudly as he paced the empty space. His claim was that before too long, this would be the state of traditional publishing; the old model of mass printings, returns, and advances was going to be completely undermined by the new e-publishing model.

I wasn’t convinced back then, but now I’m pretty sure he was right. Books have always been only a way of delivering words in a specific order; the rest is logistics. As technology starts to provide new ways of delivering those words, every aspect of the existing publishing model is being put to the test.

Here in Canada, signs are clear that ebooks are on the rise. The National Reading Survey in 2013 showed that 7% of citizens did not read electronic publications at all; for 47% their electronic reading had not changed; 28% read moderately more electronic material, and 17% read significantly more. Those are extremely strong numbers in favour of electronic reading in general, and positive signs for ebooks.

And still the publishers remain adamant that the models will persist. The digital dust has settled. The book is back.

Cynthia’s Book Summit opening remarks were an extinction burst from the old publishing model. Publishers don’t want to confront the reality of the new world they inhabit, but they will have to, and soon.

That doesn’t mean it’s over for the traditional publishers. They’ve flourished despite huge problems in the past. They employ a great number of smart, creative people, and they have the resources and capabilities to overcome this change in publishing. (There are many hopeful signs, like Tor removing all DRM from its books a few years back.)

But they’re not going to do it by hoping that the good old days of the single traditional publishing model are going to hang around. The digital dust has far from settled; it’s about to become a digital storm. And unless publishers confront that reality and work within it, they’re in real trouble.

The book isn’t back; it never left. Now figure out where it is, and go out and get it, publishers. You’re not going to be around for too long if you don’t.

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