When I saw a survey that basically said that because sales of e-readers was declining, so was the market for e-books, I knew expressions of doom and gloom would start to circulate. And they have.
Let me tell you why I think this is wrong.
First, maybe I should outline my credentials, such as they are. Before I became an author, I was a statistician, market analyst, and market consultant. I worked for fmcg (fast moving consumer goods) conglomerates for the most part, notably General Foods (now owned by Kraft). So while my expertise is definitely out of date, most of the principles I learned and used are still current. And Nielsen is there, the great research juggernaut, ploughing its way through all markets.
After that diversion, let’s take a look at the market. The book market is much smaller than the ones I dealt with when I was working. Then it was the big supermarket names, and if you think that the book market is ruthless, try disposable diapers or powdered desserts.
People tend to concatenate the qualitative and quantitative areas of research. Quantitative is the talky, discussion side, very useful because it helps to humanise the data and make sense of it. General trends are as important as the focus groups here. Quantitative is the numbers. Acres of them. Miles of the things. They need analysing very carefully if the results are to mean anything at all. Put sales in a column down one side. Now add seasonality (the date) and year-on-year sales. Put in another column for population change. Add in the socio-economic groups of the main buyers. Lag a few of the columns to allow for delayed responses and the fact that the sales figures can be reported months late. Put in the weather. Now things start to make sense. I don’t have access or time to do this, and neither would I want to. I left all that behind with a great sigh of relief. But sometimes, when I see the reports that erroneously say this or that, I have to close down the internet and walk away.
One thing stopped me this time. Sometimes, to make something true, all it needs is to be repeated over and over again. People start believing it and they behave accordingly, and then the pundits say, “See? I was right.” They weren’t, not strictly, but it doesn’t matter now, because it’s happened.
Here’s why I don’t think we have to panic, just yet, about the contraction of the book market. I’ve seen all these “facts” reported over the Internet, and all I’m trying to do here is explain the figures a bit more fully. It’s up to the professional analysts to test the theories, because I don’t have the figures anymore.
Nielsen did a survey recently, showing that the book market declined 4%.
Their conclusions are reasonable, but other people have extracted far more from it, and sometimes it doesn’t make sense. Nielsen concentrated on segments and sectors, and its conclusions are much less dramatic than others.
People have vested interests, and they will grab figures to support their attitude. That includes me, because I am an author. I don’t want the book market to decline, and has that reflected itself in my sales over the past two years? In a way, because until last year I wrote for Ellora’s Cave. But to see that decline as typical is not the case. EC is a particular publisher going through a difficult time for reasons that may have nothing to do with book sales in general.
“Bookshops are closing, and so book sales are contracting.”
We know mmpb sales are contracting, and they have been for a while. Mass market paperbacks, especially in the romance and crime/thriller markets saw massive growth in the period from the second world war to the end of the century. The peak was probably the 1990s. On the “what comes up must come down” principle, here we are. No market lasts forever. All markets have their beginnings and their ends. Everything runs in cycles and there are cycles within cycles.
Bookstores at airports aren’t closing down. That’s because people are still buying paperbacks to read on planes. I can see that declining, now many airlines are allowing Kindles and other reading devices to be read during take-off and landing. But that apart, the market is in decline, and the people vested most in it don’t like it. They are saying “the book market is declining.” Oh really? If they don’t move with the times, maybe provide a facility for downloading books on to devices the passenger owns, it might decline even more.
“People are buying fewer books because fewer e-reading devices are being sold.”
Do I even have to comment on this? The rise of the larger screened phones and improvements to electronic tablets probably have more to do with this effect. Why buy an extra device when you can do everything on your phone? Plus Amazon’s proprietary attitude, the closed-fence approach. What’s sold in Amazon stays in Amazon. They don’t report detailed sales numbers and there is no organisation in the publishing industry, as there is in others, that reveals all its figures for the benefit of all market participants. The publishing industry seems particularly paranoid.
Amazon works on scarily narrow margins, and personally I see larger companies like Apple and Walmart sniffing around. Amazon is much smaller than either of these, though its influence is larger because of their savvy marketing strategies and their global approach (which Apple shares, but Walmart doesn’t – when it buys stores abroad, like the ASDA group, it maintains the local image of the store). Walmart is a sleeping giant with a distinct gap in global online presence, compared to its size.
People are also changing their habits. Video games are getting more descriptive, richer in storytelling elements (I know several writers who are now creating storylines for video games). Does that count? When you do everything on the same device, distractions are there.
Social media has exploded over the past decade, so instead of reading on the Tube, people might be tweeting or Facebooking or Tumblring. Actually, not on the Tube, because internet reception down there is patchy at best. But on other forms of public transport.
Sales are steadying, even slowing down in some genres.
That might be because of the eternal switch in genre preference. YA and NA are definitely slowing a bit. The recent rise in romance self-publishing has overwhelmingly been in two genres – NA/YA and contemporary. But that’s the nature of the romance industry. In the 1980s, historical was king. Now historical is showing a bit of a revival, they’ll displace others. I write historical romances, so I’ve been paying a lot of attention to this sector. On forums, noticeboards and loops, people seem to be going back to the traditional and the old-style. To me that means they need more to fill them up. Having seen a big upswing in my historical sales, I’ve been concentrating on those. But then, I have a new publisher who is very keen on my books and has been giving me a lot of help, and I’ve started a new series with the other publisher of my historicals, so it might be just me. See the problems in taking anecdotal data and making it general? Also, I’ve changed my marketing strategy recently, and I’m negotiating contracts for new paranormals and contemporaries, which means a necessary break in their release, except for self-published backlists.
There are two hulking elephants in the room.
The first one is “Fifty Shades of Grey.” The rise and sales of this series were unprecedented in the romance market. I’m still not sure why it happened in that way, but it did, and well done to EL James and writers who were clever enough to leap on the bandwagon before the market was saturated. Or add a slant to the books they were already writing, so that readers avid for more could find them. However, to interpret the figures in a meaningful way, the “Fifty Shades effect” should be removed. It was one book. It’s unlikely to happen again precisely in that way. I could write another essay on the success, why it happened and why it was unique, but I don’t have the space right now. But it led to the surge in billionaire/waif books, akin to the rise in the 1920s when Mills and Boon entered the scene in the UK. It no doubt had a lot to do with the surge in sales and the growth of popularity of giving a Kindle for Christmas. But we’re probably entering the “Fifty Shades” fatigue period now, when readers, having gorged themselves on troubled billionaires and the waifs who rescue them will be looking for something else.
The second is erotic romance. I wrote erotic romance for a number of years and gained a lot of pleasure and profit from it. I still write it, but instead of calling it erotic, I’m calling it “hot” or “steamy.” I always wrote on that border anyway and left it to my publishers to decide which way it would sell best. But the market is declining, at least in some sectors. There’s no denying that. The brief surge of dinosaur porn is amusing, but not really relevant. It’s giving a few people a lot of money and more people a few laughs and maybe a bit of stroke material. That’s because it’s being subsumed into the mainstream.
Yes, Ellora’s Cave isn’t the powerhouse it once was, but that is because of a particular set of reasons. Some of them I can’t talk about, because I wrote for EC and some of my information I have is confidential, so it would be unfair to talk about it here. But that doesn’t mean the erotic market is declining overall. I think it is, but again, trends, definitions, and marketing spin all have something to do with it. Besides, erotic romance isn’t a genre, as such. It’s part of other genres, so you can have erotic paranormal romance, erotic historical romance and so on. This is being subsumed into the mainstream. Books are in general much hotter than they used to be, and more explicit, even those not in the romance market.
And a final note about Borders.
When Borders closed, the paperback market, which was slowing anyway, contracted – in the US. It didn’t make much impact worldwide, because Borders was always US-centric. When I reached out to a few industry insiders, because of previous connections, most of them said that management was at fault. It didn’t make the right decisions or carry through the ones it made properly.
The underlying factors – world literacy, the availability of devices, the internet and so on aren’t declining. Neither is the general population. That is increasing at an alarming rate.
I’ve only skimmed the surface, I know that, but those are a few reasons why I don’t see the market for reading books declining significantly just yet!