The Myth About Print Coming Back (Updated)

This post first went live in June 2016; I’ve updated it with more recent industry statistics. If you enjoy this post, I highly recommend subscribing to The Hot Sheet, an email newsletter for professional authors that I write and edit with journalist Porter Anderson.


When I read mainstream outlets on publishing industry issues (such as The New York Times or The Guardian), few things are more frustrating than articles that tout the “resurgence” of print—as well as the related “comeback” of independent bookstores. Most of it is wishful thinking rather than an understanding of what’s actually happening. Here are the recent data points you should know about.

The ebook sales decline (to the extent it’s real) relates to traditional publishing and its high ebook pricing.

Nielsen book sales

As you can tell from Nielsen’s graph above (which tracks sales of titles with ISBNs), the flattening of ebook sales started happening back in 2013. However, this decline is attributable to higher ebook prices from traditional publishers. Jonathan Stolper (formerly of Nielsen) said at Digital Book World in January 2017, “Price is the most important and most influential barrier to entry for ebook buyers and the increase in price coincided with the decrease in sales.”

If print is indeed is “back,” it’s because of Amazon. Since 2013, the traditional book publishing industry has enjoyed about a 3% increase in print book sales. However, print book sales grew largely because Amazon sold more print books. Barnes & Noble’s sales declined by 6% in 2016, and sales from mass merchandisers (Target, Walmart, etc.) also declined. But reports estimate that Amazon’s print sales in 2016 grew by 15%, primarily driven by their own discounting. (Their ebook sales are believed to have increased about 4%.)

When Amazon discounts the print edition, it often ends up undercutting the (high) ebook price. (It is not allowed to discount ebooks.) So it’s clear that consumers are unwilling to pay more, or about the same price, for an ebook as they do for print.

Two other unanswered questions:

  • whether book readers are transitioning from ebook purchases to audiobook purchases; that’s where most of the sales gains are happening for traditional publishers.
  • whether the most voracious ebook readers have switched to ebook subscription services such as Kindle Unlimited or Scribd.

Kindle Unlimited (KU), Amazon’s ebook subscription program, is estimated to represent about 14% of all ebook reads in the Amazon ecosystem. KU costs $9.99/month and is strongly dominated by self-published books—none of the major publishers participate. 

Ebook market share has drifted toward “nontraditional” publishers.

Nielsen book sales share

“Nontraditional publishing” includes self-published titles, small publishers, and Amazon imprints. Above, according to Nielsen, we see how the share of Big Five publishers has declined by 12% between 2012-2015; small publishers and self-published authors gained 23% market share combined, due to their lower pricing.

What’s even more astonishing about this graph is that Nielsen’s figures primarily give us a look at very traditional types of publishing, or books with ISBNs. There’s a whole universe of independent publishing that remains untracked because the titles don’t carry ISBNs—and most of those titles are not getting carried in your average bricks-and-mortar bookstore. They sell predominantly through Amazon.

Also, not many people are aware of what an active publisher Amazon itself is. Eight of the top 20 Kindle sellers in 2016 were from Amazon’s own publishing imprints, and Amazon now has 13 active imprints. In 2016 alone, Amazon Publishing released more than 2,000 titles.

Fiction sales are about 50% digital for traditional publishers

Often you’ll see figures that indicate that ebooks account for about 25% of all book sales for the major publishers, as in this recent graph from Nielsen, presented at London Book Fair in March 2017.

London Book Fair Nielsen

But note that’s an average across all genres and categories; if you look at fiction alone, sales are about half digital for traditionally published books. Once you factor in the nontraditional sales (self-published titles and Amazon Publishing titles), it would be within reason to expect about all fiction sales to be about 70% digital.

Barnes & Noble is losing market share to Amazon

Throughout 2016, the biggest bookstore chain in the United States struggled. During the holidays, the chain reported that comparable-store sales were down 9.1% versus 2015. The drop was attributed to various factors, including slower foot traffic in stores, the declining sales of adult coloring books, and no bestselling album by Adele.

The latest B&N quarterly earnings report showed a retail sales decline of 7.5%. Nook sales (which include devices, ebooks, and accessories) declined by 25.7%. B&N stated, “Despite post-holiday sales improvements, trends softened in late January and into the fourth quarter.”

Meanwhile, print book sales so far in 2017 show that the industry is not suffering that same rate of decline—so B&N is losing share to its competitors. The bookstore chain Indigo in Canada is showing growth, although that growth is from non-book merchandise. (Book sales remain flat at Indigo.)

Independent bookstores are doing OK, but just OK

Over the last few years, one of the feel-good publishing stories has been the rise of the independent bookstore. However, even though memberships at the American Bookseller Association (ABA) are up, stores still face issues of long-term sustainability.

For independent bookstores reporting to Nielsen, unit sales increases in 2016 were around 5%, compared to a 6.4% increase in all US print book sales. While independent bookstores have benefited from the “shop local” movement, better technology for store management and sales, and better terms from publishers, one has to be extremely optimistic to envision them growing in the face of a competitor like Amazon. (Amazon has been opening its own bricks-and-mortar bookstores across the country. They’re relatively small at 3,500 square feet; the average Barnes & Noble is ten times that size. All the books are face out, so the emphasis is on curation, and no prices are listed. Prices are variable and depend on whether the customer is an Amazon Prime member.)

At a recent conference, ABA CEO Oren Teicher said that the average profit margin of an independent bookstore is 2.4%. Therefore, even small changes in costs—such as wage or rent increases—can quickly make a store unprofitable.

To survive minimum wage increases, Shelf Awareness reported that booksellers seek to add products with a better profit margin than books: “Books Inc. [in San Francisco] has increased its sales mix from about 2 percent in gifts to around 15 percent currently. [They] would highly recommend that any bookstore not selling gifts do so.”

Additionally, booksellers are hoping for better terms from publishers, which isn’t necessarily wishful thinking; in 2016, HarperCollins launched the New Bookstore Development Program to support the opening of new independent bookstores or those expanding to new locations.

Bradley Graham, the co-owner of Politics & Prose, told Shelf Awareness that, despite the recent optimism surrounding indie bookstores, they still face serious challenges, and “the industry is not necessarily on firm financial footing for the foreseeable future.” 

Carry a big dose of skepticism, and look at possible underlying agendas, when you hear celebrations about print’s comeback. While I’m not at proclaiming the death of print or traditional publishers, few media outlets have an understanding of the big picture.


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Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman

Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the co-founder and editor of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. She also has a book forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press, The Business of Being a Writer (March 2018).

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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68 Comments on "The Myth About Print Coming Back (Updated)"

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[…] Discussions about the "resurgence" of print and the comeback of independent bookstores amounts to wishful thinking, not an understanding of the industry.  […]

robert Birnbaum
The notion of resurgence is fueled by hopeful relief that for the moment printed literature will not disappear. A fear I have always taken as childishly declinist. All that should matter to dedicated readers and writers is the longevity (or to coin a phrase, the sustainability)of literature… To that end I /we should rest assured that there will always be 400,000 serious readers in the world—a kind of cultural affirmation of the old saw, “The voice of reason is small but persistent.” The apparent continued success of small independent presses is a very positive sign that even the book business… Read more »
Lynne

Thanks for doing the research on this, Jane. It makes a lot of sense.

Jennifer Foehner Wells
In my own experience as a successful indie, the subscription Kindle Unlimited service is now 60% of my income. And my ebooks don’t have ISBNs because they don’t need them. The reason they can say ebooks are dead is because few successful indie authors (who price their books fairly compared to legacy publishing and are therefore selling quite well by comparison) are going to use ISBNs for an ebook. Bowker charges unfair prices for ISBNs. If indies pooled our resources and bought big blocks like legacy publishing can (at pennies per ISBN instead of $30 to $100 dollars each depending… Read more »
Kat Magendie

Wow! I didn’t know ISBN’s were so expensive! I am ‘traditionally” published so never had to deal with that, but want to indie pub my next book. I would certainly hesitate before spending that.

Michael W. Perry
I’m fortunate. When I got into publishing in 1999, I picked up 1,000 ISBNs from Bowker for $600 or 60 cents each. Even then the pricing was weird. Buying 100 cost $400 and I knew that I’d use more than that, so I opted for 1000. Ten times as many for only 50% more. I will never use that 1,000. But having them when each new books consumes about five is reassuring. The current mess has a reason. ISBNs exist as barcodes for printed books much like the barcodes on soup cans. There was no reason to keep that system… Read more »
Jamie Davis

Interesting article but I think you miss the point that ebook sales are rising by all indicators outside of the Nielsen ratings – the majority of ebooks don’t have ISBNs and therefore don’t get counted.

Lisa Tener

That’s quite a surprise–a bout the 12 million coloring books. It’s too bad there isn’t better tracking of self-published books. It seems that the data would be valuable to so many in the industry.

Julie H. Ferguson

Interesting, but my illustrated nonfiction books on Canadian history, traditionally pubbed, are going against the trend here. My e-book sales are 30% higher than my print sales.

Vicki Weisfeld
Very helpful discussion. However, there is a common misinterpretation of the second chart. The text says “the share of Big Five publishers has declined by 12% over the last three years.” That’s incorrect. It has declined by 12 “percentage points.” The actual decline is 26%–1minus 34/46. That’s more than a quarter! Similarly, while self-published and very small publishers have gained 23 “percentage points” in market share, they have actually gained an astonishing 220%! You’ll see this easily if you note that 42% is more than twice 19%. Journalists get tripped up by these statistical issues all the time, but in… Read more »
David Biddle

Oh, wow. Excellent point Vicki Weisfeld. And quite important. Something to keep in mind for all of us. It’s not just journalists who get tripped up.

Vicki Weisfeld

I climbed the mountain of statistics understanding in college, so want to get the most for my effort! 🙂

Bradley West
It’s a pedantic point, but that increase from 19% to 42% represents a multiple of 2.2x times but “only” an increase of 120%. To convert an increase from a multiple to a a percent, subtract 1x, so a 2.2x increase is plus 120% (i.e., 2.2 less 1). Use a simple example: if sales grow from 2 to 4, they’ve doubled (2x) while growing 100%. In a declining market, even 120% increases in market share may be misleading. The best numbers to look at are sales figures as authors eat dollars and not percentages. (I’m not suggesting that is the case… Read more »
Roxie Munro

Cogent analysis. Coloring books are skewing print, for sure. Also, a fact few people mention: a coloring book gets used up. More or less one-time use. Not good for libraries but great for the consumer market.

Mike

While I agree the buzz is distorting some facts, you ignored the technical mistakes in the eBook business like walled gardens, DRM and incompatibilities among leading systems

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[…] HarperCollins CEO and creator of independent digital publisher Open Road Integrated Media, has some thoughts on the current trend toward print supposedly coming back. Backing up her analysis with charts, Friedman effectively echoes some of the other things […]

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[…] The Myth About Print Coming Back and Bookstores on the Rise (Jane Friedman) I belong to a wide range of Facebook groups and follow a lot of media news, and few things are more frustrating than people who celebrate the apparent “resurgence” of print and the comeback of independent bookstores as some kind of “win” over ebooks and digital media. Most of it is wishful thinking rather than an understanding of what’s actually happening out there. […]

Tyson Adams

This is a hot topic in Australia at the moment. A large chunk of the industry is up in arms over some moves afoot to open up the market. A lot of Amazon and ebook bashing as a result, with the “public don’t want ebooks” claims being thrown around.

Would you mind if I reblogged this post?

Shonah

I’m an avid Aussie reader and love e-books. Kindle has been great for us as it daves so much in shipping costs.

Palessa

They like to make it seem that ebooks are evil competition against their bottom lines, which are fattening because they are increasing channels. I did read in Author Earnings’ recent report that the big pubs have dropped their book prices so i guess they’re finally catching on there. Those guys have the money to go into audio a lot quicker than I can so their attempt to garner sympathy from me makes me laugh. Print will never die or be killed by ebooks any more than the vacuum killed the broom.

Gay Yellen

Thanks for clarifying this. Very valuable info. Good journalism, too.

Ryan Petty
On the subject of “bookstores on the rise,” I’m particularly skeptical. Usually the indicator cited is that more independent bookstores are opening. Or that there’s a net gain in open, independent bookstores. Meanwhile, B&N is still closing stores and Amazon’s market share of print books keeps growing–already more than half of the print books sold and more than half of the revenue. It’s hard in that context to believe bookstores are on the rise. More likely, the truth is that people like to see themselves owning bookstores and are willing to struggle and, yes, there have been some innovations in… Read more »
James LaRue

Another cause: recessionary factors hit the public sector after they hit the private. Following 2008, a lot of public and academic library saw budget cuts, further exacerbating the decline of ebook purchases. Ebooks costs for libraries are notoriously higher than consumer prices (such that a bestseller from Random House sells to public libraries for $84). Several studies have shown the power library users (who visit the library once or twice a month) buy two ebooks for every book they borrow. But if the library is buying few books, so are they – because they can’t find them.

J. Thomas Ross
Thank you for confirming what I’ve felt about ebook sales that hadn’t seemed to occur to anyone else. When e-readers first appeared, I was thrilled to have a way to buy low-priced books (and more of them), get them instantly, and not have to find space for them among the overcrowded shelves and stacks and boxes of books in my house. It felt like a reader’s dream come true. Not anymore, however. My buying of ebooks has drastically decreased because of the high price. It irks me to pay as much for an ebook as I’d pay for a paperback… Read more »
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[…] The Myth About Print Coming Back and Bookstores on the Rise[Jane Friedman] […]

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[…] [here] and Mexico [here]) whilst print is finding itself resurgent. Jane Friedman has just offered (here) a fascinating analysis of whether statistics supporting this might actually be misleading – […]

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[…] What do the statistics about increasing print sales really mean? […]

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[…] The Myth About Print Coming Back and Bookstores on the Rise | Jane Friedman […]

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[…] So, she recently had an article titled, The Myth About Print Coming Back and Bookstores on the Rise. […]

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[…] seems to have taken this corner a bit too fast and as a result has come off the rails here. The problem is highlighted by her title: “The myth about print coming back and bookstores on […]

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[…] und das Eintauchen in Krimis und Serien bestens geeignet. Wie immer bei diesen Diskussionen hilft ein genauer Blick auf die verschiedenen […]

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[…] Friedman puts recent news about declining ebooks sales in favor of print into perspective with this column. Buyers who are shunning higher ebook prices from traditional publishers, an increase in adult […]

Ben
Two questions… 1. If you back out adult coloring book sales, how does that affect the overall print stats? 2. You state “There’s a whole universe of independent publishing that remains untracked because the titles don’t carry ISBNs—and most of those titles are not getting carried in your average bricks-and-mortar bookstore”. If you were able to add these sales, don’t you think it would have an effect on the overall print sales figures? Amazon is not the end all for book sales. I loaded my Kindle when I first got it, but find myself reading more hardcover and paperback books… Read more »
Carla King

I’m so glad you posted this. I’ve been frustrated at the same claim, but didn’t have the data to deny it. Thanks for providing!

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[…] recommendations: http://www.TheCreativePenn.com/bookcoverdesign 37:23 – Are ebook sales decreasing? See this article. 39:04 – Why I don’t use ISBNs 39:35 – What about publishing a personalized print […]

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[…] recommendations: http://www.TheCreativePenn.com/bookcoverdesign 37:23 – Are ebook sales decreasing? See this article. 39:04 – Why I don’t use ISBNs 39:35 – What about publishing a personalized print […]

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[…] aber doch zu denken geben sollten. Jane Friedman steigt dazu noch tiefer in die Materie ein und entlarvt aktuelle, populäre Mythen – zum Beispiel den von der Renaissance des Print im englischsprachigen Markt. Ergänzend dazu […]

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[…] Recently, some people have pointed to a rise in print books sales (which sounds great), but it’s very possible that the rise is almost entirely due to coloring books. […]

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[…] Others would point out that e-book weakness is largely because there wasn’t a breakout YA novel in 2014 or 2015 – which shows how a single author like J.K.Rowling can move the market more than 10,000 other lesser selling authors. And at the same time, the rise in print sales is almost entirely due to the recent fade of adult colouring books. […]

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[…] My recommendations: http://www.TheCreativePenn.com/bookcoverdesign 37:23 – Are ebook sales decreasing? See this article. 39:04 – Why I don’t use ISBNs 39:35 – What about publishing a personalized print book? 40:11 […]

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[…] It’s commonly said that in the United States, overall trade book sales are divided about 70-30 print-digital, and that ebook sales at traditional publishing houses are flat to declining. (You’ve probably heard the celebratory and misleading claims that “print is back!”) […]

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[…] Continue reading @ Jane Friedman » […]

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[…] https://janefriedman.com/myth-print/ Some figures print versus digital. Who’s the winner? […]

Tom S

Another unknown: how many people read ebooks borrowed from public libraries, rather than purchase? These are largely tradpub titles, and at least in my case, I usually borrow rather than buy if it is available that way.

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[…] the preserve of ordinary college educated readers between the ages of 30 and 44. Publishing expert, Jane Friedman also asks whether ebook buyers are migrating to audiobooks (where sales are on the increase) and […]

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[…] Publications with business models that predominantly rely (or did rely) on print also have the “nostalgia” problem—where they’re particularly prone to latch on to any story that indicates a possible resurgence of print or decline of digital. (I’ve addressed this problem before.) […]

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[…] Friedman provides a wrap-up and analysis of this meme in her post The Myth About Print Coming Back. She points out that most of the stories are just “wishful thinking rather than an […]

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