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Susan Miles Gulbransen: Will the E-Book Go the Way of the Dodo?

How predictable are book sales? About as much as a roulette wheel.

Every year at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference, book sales and best practices for getting published are common topics. The latest slant is “Will e-books outsell hard print books and eventually put them out of business?”

That was the trend-on-the-treadmill back in 2008-10, when e-book sales increased by 1,274.1 percent. Brick and mortar stores in all retail fields were seeing customers come in, browse merchandise and then pull out a cell phone to order on online.

E-books sold galore while many real bookstores disappeared. Predictions saw paper print as a dying medium.

After several years of unstoppable growth, e-book sales have stalled. Between 2014 and 2015, they declined nearly 14 percent among traditionally published books.

The Codex-Group, a data survey company for the publishing industry, did a similar survey that included traditional publishers and self publishers, generally the overall industry.

It determined that e-books fell from 35.9 percent in 2015 of total books purchased to 32.4 percent this year.

This drop was across the age board. Many young readers, those who have never known a world without digital technology, are showing signs of preferring paper to screens.

In April 2016, 19 percent of 18-24 year-old e-book readers chose hard print, a percentage that is increasing.

On the other end of the scale, about 30 percent of 55-64 age e-books buyers are turning back to hard print.
Like most changing situations, the reasons are multiple and tenuous.

One could be the lack of new blockbuster series in the past year. Series like Anne Rice’s The Vampire Chronicles or Fifty Shades tend to attract readers to e-books, even though they no longer have new books being released.

High-end popular books like Harry Potter, The Hunger Games and other cross-over (children’s and young adult) books have completed their series. No others seem yet on the horizon.

At the same time, paperback sales increased from 2014 to 2015 by 16 percent, according to the Association of American Publishers.

This increase may reflect that paperbacks are often cheaper than e-books. For instance Jo-Jo Moyes’ Me Before You, a best seller and newly released movie, costs $9.99 on the Kindle and just under $7 in paperback.

Alternative technology such as smart phones and electronic tablets has taken a bite out of e-reader sales in markets like the Kindle and Nook.

In 2013 about 6 percent e-book buyers purchased them for alternative technology over the e-reader. By 2015, that percentage rose by 15.

Overall book sales destined for the Kindle (Amazon) have reportedly dropped to 21 percent in 2015 from 30 percent in 2013.

Codex-Group President Peter Hildick-Smith gave Publishers Weekly additional reasons leading to the decline in e-books.

“The e-book has not delivered the quality long-form reading experience needed to supplant print, even with e-books’ major price and convenience advantages.”

Studies have demonstrated that readers of hard print retain up to 10 percent more of the material compared to e-books.

The second reason Hildick-Smith gives is “digital fatigue.” Studies have shown that the lack of quality in electronic reading is harder on the eyes. Because many of us already spend much time on computers, the paper page can offer relief.

He points out that the e-reader device market must come up with lower-prices and higher-quality options. 

Amazon recently unveiled a new tablet for $50, which could draw a new wave of customers to e-books. Compare that to the first-generation Kindle, which cost $400.

Even so, Hildick-Smith expects that consumers tiring of their digital-device experience will have further digital fatigue, which will lead to continued e-book sales erosion.

Having said all this, I am not about to let go of my e-book reader. It is a great travel companion because I can drop it into my purse; it takes no room in my suitcase and is easy to download new titles in an instant.

During the night, poor lighting poses no problem when reading the e-book. Hey, I can even make the font larger if need be. Call me a hybrid. No shame there.

At home, however, I still prefer the heft of a book and the sound of turning the pages.

Bottom line of e-book vs. hard print: Book publishing is a tough cookie that is even more complicated than it was a couple of decades ago. These figures could easily turn the other way in the next month, year or soon. There goes that roulette wheel again….

Bottom line for authors: Getting a book published and then figuring out how and where to sell it turns out almost more complicated than writing the tome.

Noozhawk columnist Susan Miles Gulbransen — a Santa Barbara native, writer and book reviewer — teaches writing at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference and through the Santa Barbara City College Continuing Education Division. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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