Amazon UK announced that the Kindle was their top-selling item this Christmas season. Not only that, it was the top gift-wrapped item this season—a detail I love. (How many brick-and-mortar retailers can tell you that statistic?) More than 2.1 million Kindles sold from the end of November through Christmas in the United Kingdom alone.
This is fantastic news for writers with a digital presence, whether through their traditional publisher or through their own indie publishing program. The UK has been relatively slow to adapt to e-readers, partly because of pricing barriers.
In fact, all of the European Union has pricing issues, which I’m not going to go into here. But suffice to say what it has done is slow the e-book sales in Europe, so that only the hardcore reader and/or computer user adapted to the new format.
Those pricing issues are fading, especially in England. So that, plus the low-end Kindle being offered at 89 pounds (about $138) will lead to a significant rise in e-book sales.
I already noticed it in my UK sales this morning. My US Kindle sales aren’t that different than usual, but there was a flurry of buying on the UK site on Christmas night and into the day after.
Still, I don’t expect much difference for my books in the next month or two, and neither should any other writer with books at the usual price. Right now, every traditional publisher on the planet is offering a deal to catch the new readers.
. . . .
The new readers will learn how their Kindles work. They will realize that they won’t have to buy everything they want immediately in case it goes away, like they did in a brick-and-mortar store. The new readers will learn about sampling, and they’ll learn that they can set up a wish list to keep track of titles that will remain available. And eventually, they’ll become as jaded as the rest of us.
But all this planning, all these hopes, all of these attempts to manipulate the new post-Christmas sales season will go awry.
Because everyone is doing it.
I’ve already seen some backlash. Indie authors on Christmas night wondering why they didn’t have a magical miraculous huge uptick in sales. Indie authors expected it immediately.
Traditional publishers did too. They’re going to want to know the effect of their promotions—how many new readers did the promotions bring in? And they probably won’t bring in nearly as expected. Because—think about it—if everything is on sale, then the sales price doesn’t look that enticing.
The sale isn’t special.
If everything is on sale, the reader has wandered into a virtual discount store—only this discount store isn’t full of remaindered items that couldn’t sell. This discount store is filled with stuff that everyone wants.
There’s too much, and the reader won’t even get a chance to see it all. In fact, the reader will probably quit looking at some point because she’s so overwhelmed.
So guess what’s going to happen? We’ll all see analysis in the next few months on how e-book sales weren’t as big as expected. In-house at traditional publishers, there will be an examination of the promotions, and that examination will determine that most promotions don’t work.
Of course, the sales will have improved, but everyone will be complaining because their expectations were unrealistic. Rather than seeing the improvement as a good thing, they’ll look on it with disappointment, wondering what went wrong.
Then e-book sales will plateau as the new readers actually read what’s on their devices, instead of shop on those devices. This is what happened last year. There was a huge rush of sales in the weeks after Christmas, and then the sales dropped off.
. . . .
You can’t absorb millions of new devices into a system and not have an uptick in book sales. Mark Coker discusses this in his Smashwords blog: “If the patterns we observed last year hold true again, we’ll see a massive stepping up of the sales rates across all retailers in the first few days after Christmas, followed by a week or so of moderation, and then a new normal going forward that is significantly higher than the sales rate for the weeks and months immediately preceding Christmas.”
But in this gotta-have-it now environment that traditional publishing (and some indies) have gotten themselves into, the drop off (or moderation, as Coker calls it) will look catastrophic. That catastrophe, on top of yet a larger first quarter drop off in paper book sales, will have every traditional publisher reassessing everything they do.
Because their business model won’t let them wait until the second quarter. Their business model demands a huge improvement in each quarter—and since they predicted a brilliant first quarter, and they’ll probably only get a good one, they’ll see that as a failure.
And what will happen in the second quarter? We’ll see what the actual post-Christmas growth really is. We’ll know what the new plateau is. We’ll know if we’re getting ten times more readers or twenty times or three hundred times. We’ll see how the growth is actually working.
. . . .
A directive came down from Barnes & Noble corporate in the middle of December, telling all the brick-and-mortar stores that they had to prepare for an influx of books. I don’t have a link to this: several people who work at B&N in management let me know when the directive came down, partly because it had an unintentionally funny line: Apparently, B&N corporate said to its staff, “We underestimated the interest in books,” and that was why B&N was scrambling to fill its brick-and-mortar stores with paper books.
This was after The New Yorker put B&N on the cover in a rather nasty way—quite shocking when you consider that B&N advertises every week in The New Yorker, and one of the cardinal rules of magazine publishing is not to piss off your advertisers in a recession. Here’s the cover:
I think B&N got the message. I hope they filled the stores with books. I didn’t get a chance to check because I got sick at that point, then Dean got sick, and then there was no leaving the house before the holidays.
Usually, however, these corporate directives do lead to action. So if B&N did increase the amount of books it stocked in the last few weeks before Christmas, then fourth quarter numbers will show that paper books sales went up more than expected. B&N is now the largest bookstore chain in America, and as such will have a large impact on book sales whenever it remembers that it’s an actual bookstore, and not a place to sell toys or games.
People will have purchased a lot of those books at B&N as gifts. No matter how the various e-reading sites try to develop a good way to help consumers give electronic books as a present, nothing is more satisfying than wrapping a book and placing it under the tree. A lot of the B&N customers who bought books for presents only go into B&N at Christmas time, so they probably didn’t even know that for a while B&N didn’t carry many books at all. These customers bought their holiday books, ticked an item off their Christmas list, and moved on to other stores without a backwards glance.
And those folks won’t return until Christmas 2012.
. . . .
If B&N’s corporate masters are that clueless, then they will expect that uptick in paper book sales to increase in the first quarter. And like all first quarters in the paper book part of the industry, paper book sales will decrease. They might even drop off precipitously, considering that the only people who went into bookstores in January, February, and March were book lovers, all of whom have, like me, developed new ways to find their paper books.
If B&N has a dramatic downturn in paper books, then the entire paper book industry will have a decrease. It won’t be as bad as the first quarter of 2011, when traditional publishers finally realized that Borders really and truly was going to go bankrupt and no one could stop it. But it won’t be pretty.
Combine that with the first-quarter plateau in e-book sales, and what will you get? Incredible doom and gloom from all of the traditional industry pundits long about the first week of April. The sky will be falling yet again, even though more books will have been published than ever, more books (of all types) will have been purchased than ever, and the industry—the overall industry (not just traditional publishing)—will be healthier than it has been in decades.
. . . .
The narrowing of taste—appealing to the editor, the sales force, the bookstore—means that only certain types of books get published. And as Emily Casey points out, those folks know only what they, their friends, and others like them will enjoy. Those buyers don’t take into account the reader in Cincinnati who wants a romance set in 1850 Ohio or the reader in Japan who wants a modern version of Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book.
Those readers might not buy in bulk—they might not buy thousands of copies in the month of a book’s release—but they’ll buy. And then they’ll convince their friends to buy and so on.
And suddenly, books that had no hope in New York publishing will sell thousands of copies. And since the writer is not making pennies on each copy but dollars, the writer will earn a living wage (or better).