The Quiet Ebooks Revolution
Today I want to talk about ebooks. I want to show how their real popularity is often not fully reflected in the publishing industry reports we draw upon to assess our target book markets.
Whether we are focussed on a single country like the US or the UK, Italy, Sweden or Germany, or a wider market in Africa, Asia or South America, or wanting to reach a truly global audience, data matters. But often data is in short supply, is only partially collected, or is misrepresented to suit a particular agenda. And that can warp our perspective of the book markets as they exist today, how they are trending, and what opportunities present themselves for the future.
As CEO of a digital publishing platform based in Italy but with global reach, I am constantly challenging Italian publishers to look beyond the domestic market, exciting as that is, and to embrace the global opportunities digital brings to the table. And through our industry journal The New Publishing Standard, we try to send that message to the world:
That publishing today is a truly global opportunity in a way quite inconceivable back in the 2000s, when Amazon launched its first Kindle store in the US (2007), available at the time only in the US to American authors and publishers.
In 2023 the world of digital books is a different planet. Ebooks are just one component in a far broader digital publishing spectrum embracing print (POD), regular ebooks, online reading (serialisation and subscription), audio (audiobooks and podcasting) and emerging formats. And with the affordable AI revolution dawning, our opportunities to reach new audiences in new ways are growing exponentially.
Authors and publishers globally need to be paying attention to this phenomenon if they don’t want to miss out on some of the greatest publishing opportunities of this decade.
In saying that, I nail my colours clearly to the mast: StreetLib is a digital books platform! But let me make one thing clear right away: I love books in all their forms, including paper. I love contemplating my personal physical library in search of something indefinable, and I couldn’t live without that magical immersive experience that only a beautiful paper book can provide. And that’s one reason why StreetLib is committed to expanding the reach of print books, through rapidly developing print-on-demand (POD) technology. In Italy, our POD project is well-advanced and we are working hard to roll this out across other markets.
Print is an essential component of the publishing industry, and in most of the world print is, unquestionably, king. But printed books, beautiful as they are, are not always the best option, or even an option at all, for some consumers. Price, availability and accessibility mean that in some parts of the world printed books are not easily available or affordable. Those of us that live in rural areas in the US and Europe will know how challenging it can be to get the books we want.
Ecommerce has helped make more books available, where delivery services are able to reach. But most of the world’s population do not live within easy distance of a bookshop, and even fewer have the delivery services we take for granted in the developed countries. Which is where digital — in the form of ebooks, online reading and audio, can open up new market reach hitherto off limits to authors and publishers. But even in developed markets where print books are readily available, many consumers prefer digital. And it will surprise some to learn that this is not always a minority.
In Thailand, for example, 42% of the book market is digital. In the Nordics, it’s over 50%. And even in the big western markets like the US and UK, the scale of digital is likely bigger than you think.
Let me focus here on the US, universally recognised as the biggest book market on the planet, but where conventional wisdom has it that ebooks make up just 20% of the market. The reality may surprise you.
You see, here at StreetLib we are a digital publishing platform that caters for all publishers, from corporate to small press to self-published authors. And that gives us insights into a side of the industry often unreported, or at least under-reported, by the mainstream publishing industry media. Of course, the experience of one company, and one that is openly digitally-focussed, cannot tell the full story, so let me set aside StreetLib ‘s experience and look at the bigger picture.
We will all be familiar with the invaluable reports from the Association of American Publishers that show us the US book market. But as the AAP readily admits, this is not the full market, just those publishers that report to it. A substantial part of the US market, no question, but not all of it. The reports from Nielsen BookScan (now called Circana BookScan) similarly capture a substantial part of the US book market, but not all of it. To see the full picture we need to turn to BookStat (now owned by Podium), which in a break from tradition has this year offered us new insights into the true scale of digital reading in the USA, and which paints a very different picture from that we are used to seeing.
Summarising a report from BookStat in Publishers Weekly earlier this year, Jim Milliot told us that total online book sales rose 5.6% in 2022, to $12.13 billion, while unit sales increased 6.6%, to 1.12 billion.
Sales are broken down by format as follows:
- $3.04 billion in audiobooks (up 22% over 2021)
- $2.57 billion of ebooks (up 6% over 2021)
- $6.52 billion of print books (down 0.6% from 2021)
In terms of sales units, the situation is instead as follows:
- 188 million audiobook units sold (up 23% from 2021)
- 526 million ebook units sold (up 8% from 2021)
- 403 million units sold of paper books (down 1.3% from 2021)
Let us focus on those revenue numbers — $12.3 billion — for online book sales, and consider that “only” $6.52 billion of that was for print. Meaning $5.78 million of those online sales were for digital books. And then factor in that, of that 5.6% rise in online book sales revenue, print contributed a negative number, actually falling 0.6%.
While print book revenue fell 0.6%, ebook revenue rose a full 6.0%, to $2.57 billion. Meanwhile audiobooks jumped 22%, to $3.04 billion, meaning audiobooks outsold ebooks in revenue terms.
(We shouldn’t be surprised there. Revenue is the total money paid for the books, and of course audiobooks are notoriously more expensive than their print or ebook counterparts. Sell ten audiobooks at $20 and you have $200 revenue. Sell ten print books at $15 and you have $150 revenue. Sell twenty ebooks at $5 and you have $100. Clearly in this example audiobooks make more money for publishers than ebooks. Yet ebooks in this example outsold other formats. And keep in mind revenue is not profit. Once we factor in the production costs of audio and the production and distribution and returns costs of print, there’s not a lot of profit left from those sales to share among the publisher and author.)
But let’s switch our attention from revenue to unit sales. That is, how many print books were actually sold (excluding returns). Again, print books (unit online sales) took a tumble. Down 1.3% to 403 million units. Unit sales of audiobooks by contrast jumped 23% to 188 million units. Ebook sales rose 8% in 2022 to 526 million units, making ebooks by far the most popular format for online book sales.
Combined digital book sales — ebook and audio — in unit terms outsold print to the tune of 311 million units.
The difference in revenue and unit values is of course because ebooks can be produced, and therefore sold at a lower cost than either audio or print and still leave the publisher a nice profit.
Self-publishers are especially aware of this, and they typically take home anything from 60% to 80% of cover price for their ebooks. Meaning a self-published author can sell an ebook at, say, $5, and even at only 60% collect a $3 royalty. That’s much more than a traditionally-published author can hope for.
Nor do the surprises stop there. Because while self-published authors have a hard time competing in bricks & mortar bookstores, online it’s a different story. Per the Bookstat report, self-published titles accounted for over half — 51% — of all unit sales in the US, and 34% as measured by revenue.
In ebook sales alone self-published authors sold $874 million worth of ebooks in the USA last year. And those authors will also be selling in other countries.
As you can see, digital publishing is much more complex than at first seems. The reality is, reading and listening habits often tend to evolve independently of the policies of mainstream publishers with their print-first focus. New generations are finding new ways to source the content they want to read. Very often, these manifest themselves within new, digital, fluid contexts, and may be almost impossible to measure with the classic ink-on-paper book publishing models.
Let me provide some concrete examples:
First example: Kindle Unlimited (KU) is the Amazon Kindle subscription program to which you can subscribe for $9.99 a month to access a catalog with millions of ebooks.
In 2022, KU’s annual pot globally totaled an astronomical $552 million, up 16% from 2021.
What is the KU “pot”? Unlike other subscription programs, KU offers a remuneration (to all small publishers and independent authors who decide to include their ebooks in the program) which is calculated starting from a sum, known in jargon as a “pot”, which Amazon decides unilaterally to allocate each month. For clarity, this sum indicates the net income of publishers and authors who have decided to be included in the KU program, and not the value of sales at cover price, as in the AAP and Circana reports. APub authors are paid separately from the pot.
We are therefore talking about over half a billion in additional revenue (up by over 70 million dollars compared to 2021) which was collected by independent publishers and authors through this subscription formula, with a sales model different from the a la carte model used for paper books and a la carte ebook sales.
Second example: let’s analyse the world of serialised content, or serial content.
During her presentation at Digital Book World in New York about a month ago, which I was lucky enough to witness firsthand, Yonder’s Annie Stone confirmed that fiction serial content has a market value of $100 million in the US (June 2022 data), with a growth of 21.7% over the previous year.
Yonder is the brand new Webtoon/Naver app dedicated to serial fiction content, in whose description we read this beautiful claim: “Wherever you want to go. Whenever you want to go. Reading for the modern world.”
As if to say that anyone, anywhere, thanks to the “samples” of short but valid content provided by Yonder, now has the opportunity to stop and read for at least a few minutes a day, even during the dead times of the day.
There is a plethora of new blockbuster mobile apps providing a digital/serial reading experience to a new generation of readers (such as Wattpad, Webtoon, Tapas, Radish and the brand new Yonder), and on which heavy investment is being concentrated mainly from of South Korean companies. For those wishing to learn more about the topic, I recommend reading this article on TNPS.
These examples show clearly that the ebook and broader digital books markets are decidedly more complex than we might think, showing us that readers are exploring new services, new formats and new ways of consuming books that often are only partially catered for by traditional publishers, if at all.
Back in 2007, when Amazon launched the first Kindle store, there were just 1.3 billion people online in the entire world And just 219 million of those were in the USA. Other countries were way behind.
But fast forward 2023, and there are 5.5 billion people online. The USA’s 312 million internet users today are dwarfed by the one billion people online in China, the 834 million online in India, and the 590 million people online in Africa.
For the first time in human history, a gigantic number of people have the ability to access all the information that was once available to a very small percentage of the global population. Our innate desire to inform ourselves, to learn, or simply to be inspired or entertained, finally finds an answer in that precious luminous screen.
Finally, we can take all the digital books we want with us and read them at the time of day that best suits us, without any kind of physical limit. The smartphone has now become an extension of our body, and this has exponentially increased the likelihood of our being entertained by the digital text content it conveys. Obviously the same is true, perhaps even more, for audiobooks and podcasts, which don’t even require exclusive attention to the content.
Finally, everyone in the world, from any latitude, can satisfy the desire to access the information and cultural heritage produced by those artists, writers, and poets they love — who perhaps live or work on the other side of the planet and who they likely discovered in the first place thanks to social media.
The level of demand for digital content has grown exponentially in recent years. and has never been as high as it is today.
The competition to monetize that demand has never been fiercer, with thousands upon thousands of services and apps continually innovating and evolving just to capture the attention levels of us as readers, listeners, and consumers.
And right now, we are at the very start of a whole new revolution in digital content creation and delivery as AI, with sweet irony, moves from the realm of science fiction books to everyday reality for authors and publishers anywhere in the world.
That’s another topic, and one we at StreetLib are enthralled by. I’ll return to this in a future post. But here, just to wind down this essay, with its ebook focus, with a few words about the practicalities of ebook publishing in 2023.
The official industry reports must be read carefully, but it is necessary to always be aware that they can only capture a part of what is happening in the colorful digital world… and it therefore becomes essential for publishers to go further and try to understand what the reading habits of the new generations are and the evolution of digital publishing in a broad sense.
What are the advantages of placing the ebook at the center of your editorial strategy? Here are some very concrete ones:
1- The ebook never goes out of print: a book simultaneously produced in digital version lives forever and has no expiration date.
2- The ebook can be purchased at any time of the day, with availability 24/7/365, and from almost anywhere in the world and arrives on our device within seconds.
3- Producing an ebook costs relatively little: very often less than $100 for a full professional format.
4- Distributing an ebook is cheap: very often digital distribution has no fixed costs, but retains a percentage equal to or less than 10% of the cover price.
5- The ebook has no warehouse costs and is not affected by the enormous problem of returns.
6- The ebook offers the publisher maximum flexibility on the cover price: the publisher can change the price as often as desired, at no cost, and thus easily support all marketing activities and promotions.
7- The ebook offers the publisher maximum flexibility in terms of bundling: the publisher can create and offer packages by combining the ebook with other digital content, with physical gadgets, to support a special event or in combination with any promotional activity.
8- The ebook offers the publisher maximum flexibility in terms of updates: the publisher can correct and update the content even after it has been distributed, it can include additional complementary chapters and can insert special pages to support its own promotional activities forward in time.
9- Thanks to reading, listening and subscription apps, the ebook presents the publisher with the opportunity to monitor the reaction of its readers to its content, for example by monitoring up to which page a given ebook is read.
10- Thanks to the new AI techniques, the ebook presents the publisher with the opportunity to create the corresponding audiobook version narrated by digital voice at very low cost. It is still early days, but this is something that Google and Apple are already doing, and this genie cannot be put back in the bottle.
11- The ebook does not cannibalize the paper book: time and again reports from digital platforms show consumers reading ebooks also buy more print, not less.
12- The ebook is not the cause of piracy: the ebook increases the accessibility of a work and thus reduces the pirate’s incentive. The best strategy to reduce piracy is to produce your catalog in ebook format, and to embrace new business models designed to follow the needs of new generations of readers (eg subscription programs).
13 — The ebook is inclusive: to those people who have difficulty reading texts in traditional formats, the ebook offers the possibility of changing the size of the font, the contrast of the page background, and in some cases even the sound reading in text-to-speech.
What exactly would be the activities that a publisher should start doing right away in order to start seizing the opportunities offered by the digital market? Here are some very specific ones:
1- Produce quality ebooks: obviously I’m not talking about the content but about the container, and the latter must be impeccable from a technical point of view. The cover must be in high resolution, the epub must be valid and therefore comply with all the requirements dictated by the latest version of EPubCheck, the final file must not be heavier than 3–4 Mbytes (unless there are special cases).
2- The publication date of the ebook and the paper book must coincide: to do this, it is necessary to organize an ebook production process parallel to the paper one within the publishing house. If the ebook is published on a later date than the paper book, the paper book may also be penalized by some online bookstores!
3- Avoid publishing the ebook on a single retailer: nowadays there are many ebook sales platforms and my advice is to rely on a digital distributor who can guarantee the best possible digital distribution coverage, in order to maximize the exposure of one’s work and seize all the opportunities in the various market niches.
4- Avoid selling the ebook only with the classic a-la-carte model: it is important to adopt all the digital business models that make sense for the ebook genre in question. These new models have been designed to meet new audiences and new needs for using content, and it is good to make the most of them.
5- Avoid using outdated territorial restrictions. These may still have a place with certain printed books, where distribution options are limited, or rights-holders dictate limits, but digital can be truly global, and putting any restriction on where an ebook might be sold is to leave money on the table.
6- Choosing a digital distribution partner capable of offering added value — for example by providing additional services integrated with the distribution or proposing additional and experimental distribution channels on new markets or with new digital business models. The correct choice of partner or production service is essential.
Long live ebooks!