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As E-book Sales Decline, Digital Fatigue Grows

18 June 2016

From Publishers Weekly:

Though various sources have reported a decline in e-book sales for traditional publishers in 2015 compared to 2014, no one has come up with a clear reason for the drop. To gain some insight into the trend, the Codex Group devoted a recent survey of book buyers’s shopping preferences to looking more deeply into the question.

The book market has taken a different path from the music and home video markets, where research from industry associations shows that consumers continued to increase digital spending last year (with digital reaching record revenue share levels of 70% and 59%, respectively, for 2015).

Preliminary figures from the Association of American Publishers found that sales of e-books for trade publishers fell 14% in 2015 compared to 2014 and accounted for 20% of overall trade book revenue, down from 23% in 2014. Going beyond AAP’s member publisher sales performance, the Codex Group’s April 2016 survey of 4,992 book buyers found that e-book units purchased as a share of total books purchased fell from 35.9% in April 2015 to 32.4% in April 2016. The Codex survey includes e-books published by traditional publishers and self-publishers and sold across all channels and in all categories.

In light of the April study results, Codex president Peter Hildick-Smith believes that the book industry’s experience with digital sales differs from that of music and video because of two factors. First, electronic devices are optional for reading books (unlike for listening to music or watching video), and the current range of e-book reading devices—including smartphones, tablets, and dedicated e-readers—has not delivered the quality long-form reading experience needed to supplant print, even with e-books’ major price and convenience advantages. Second, Hildick-Smith said, a new consumer phenomenon, “digital fatigue,” is beginning to emerge.

. . . .

Though only 34% of book buyer households own e-book readers, they are still the dominant factor in e-book consumption, having been used for an average of 55% of the total time spent reading the most recent e-book read by respondents. Dedicated e-reader owners also purchased 59% of e-book units bought by respondents in the month. In contrast, tablets, owned by 66% of book-buying households, were used for only 28% of e-book reading time, while smartphones, with the highest penetration among book buyers (73%), accounted for only 12% of e-book reading time.

The challenge going forward, Hildick-Smith pointed out, is that dedicated e-reader ownership has been stagnant for the past three years, and the devices are increasingly being retired. Only 50% of dedicated e-reading devices were used by respondents to read e-books in the week prior to the survey, and less than one-third of the devices were used to purchase an e-book in the prior month. Tablets and smartphones are not picking up the slack, with only 52% of tablets and 26% of smartphones being used for e-book reading in the week prior to the survey.

. . . .

 The Codex survey also found that though book buyers stated they spent almost five hours of daily personal time on screens, 25% of book buyers, including 37% of those 18–24 years old, want to spend less time on their digital devices. Since consumers almost always have the option to read books in physical formats, they are indicating a preference to return to print. In the April survey, 19% of 18-to-24-year-olds said they are reading fewer e-books than when they started reading that format, the highest percentage among all age groups. Overall, 14% of book buyers said they are now reading fewer e-books than when they started reading books in the format, and 59% percent of those who said they are reading fewer e-books cited a preference for print as the main reason for switching back to physical books. The share of print books purchased was also the highest among the heaviest screen users, the so-called digital natives, ages 18–24 (83%), and lowest (61%) among 55-to-64-year-olds.

Link to the rest at Publishers Weekly and thanks to SMH for the tip.

PG is skeptical of these data. He wasn’t able to find any information about methodology, but did remember that a 2014 Codex survey found that book buyers were leaving Amazon and moving to Barnes & Noble because of the dispute between Hachette and Amazon.

PG’s understanding is that most of Codex’s customers are traditional publishers, but he could be wrong about that.

Ebooks

45 Comments to “As E-book Sales Decline, Digital Fatigue Grows”

  1. I covered a presentation Codex chief Peter Hildick-Smith gave at BEA—which was apparently based on the same report discussed by the PW article, as this all seems very familiar. During the presentation, Hildick-Smith explained that Codex surveys 5,000 book buyers every month on their buying habits. He said that since the focus is on individual buyers, not stores or publishers, the statistics gather information on every book or e-book purchase those consumers make, whether from big, small, or self-publishers.

    • So their survey is, more or less, stuck in time, since it’s the same 5000 buyers, and doesn’t capture anything relating to shifting demographics and new readers.

      That’s actually a very useful way to gather data, like a very large focus group, but you can only get certain kinds of info from it — and one of the things you CAN’T get at all are trends.

      • Actually, I don’t know for sure that it’s the same 5,000 book buyers. Just that it’s 5,000. He didn’t discuss how the 5,000 are selected, or whether they’re the same or different people.

        This 2010 piece said that the Codex Group surveyed Borders customers. I don’t expect they do that anymore.

        • If they get their readers from B&M bookstores, they are going to over-represent readers who get their books from B&M bookstores. And this is magnified because e-reader owners are avid readers who buy more books in the form of e-books than do non-e-reader owners in the form of physical books.

          All the new bookstores have closed in my town. There are three used bookstores. All my new book purchases are online, both physical books and e-books. I’m an over-50 female, so I’m the largest part of the e-reader population; not only am I an Avid Reader but also an Avid Cheapskate, so both characteristics are going to drive me to make online purchases.

          Like the indie authors without ISBNs, according to this survey I’m an Invisible Customer.

    • If it’s the same 5,000, it’s not a reliable sample. It’s not random.

  2. “Though various sources have reported a decline in e-book sales for traditional publishers in 2015 compared to 2014, no one has come up with a clear reason for the drop. ”

    They raised their prices.

    There, I solved it. Took four words.

    • the Other Diana

      Fantastic Indie eBooks. Cheaper.

      Also 4 words.

      And

      KU

      One word or two?

      I’m voracious and I succumbed to KU. But I think after 6 months, I’ll give it up. I need to focus more on writing not reading. I’ll probably still spend the same $ but to buy ebooks instead of borrowing.

    • That said, the report claims to cover all e-book sales, not just Big Five. The price thing accounts for Big Five titles, but what accounts for the similar decline in small and indie publisher sales the report claims to find?

      • the report the article is covering might, but the article says ‘traditional publishers’

      • That claim is problematic.

        AuthorEarnings, which has a transparent methodology, claims to have found an overall increase in ebook sales at Amazon.com which is estimated to have as much as 74% of the US ebook market. They also have noted a decline in Big5 ebook sales that matches figures from the Big5.

        For the Codex Group’s observed 9.75% drop April 2105 to April 2016 to be accurate, assuming Amazon.com ebook sales were flat (when in fact they seem to have increased) every other vendor of ebooks would have to see their ebook sales drop by 38%. Barnes & Noble reported ebook sale declines of 30% to 40%. That fits, but Apple (larger than B&N) and Kobo (smaller than B&N) haven’t been posting similar declines.

        The non-Amazon’s channels greater reliance on Big5 titles could drag their sales down with the Big5, but an average of 38% across all non-Amazon channels is a big ask when the Big5 are reporting declines of 14%.

      • “what accounts for the similar decline in small and indie publisher sales the report claims to find?”

        KU.

        Don’t know about anyone else, but my books have gone to about 50:50 sales/borrows since KU came out.

        • That could do it.

          I recently saw an estimate that 1/3rd of Kindle titles are in KU. (Can’t be bothered to look now. We’ll just run with it as a guesstimate.)

          0.33 (fraction of all Kindle books in KU)
          x
          0.5 (average sales/borrows ratio for those books)
          x
          0.74 (Amazon.com US ebook market share)
          =
          0.12 and a bit

          Two of three terms are shaky, but the guesstimate puts us in the ballpark. Unfortunately for doom and gloom, even if subscription borrows aren’t counted as sales, readers are still reading those books and publishers/authors are still getting paid.

  3. Smart Debut Author

    Though various sources have reported a decline in e-book sales for traditional publishers in 2015 compared to 2014, no one has come up with a clear reason for the drop.

    You had one job, PW…

    😀

  4. Trad pub pricing for ebooks is too high by about 25 to 40%. IMO.

  5. Here’s my own overall analysis of this new discussion of the report.

  6. Since Codex Group surveyed Borders’ customers in 2010, I wonder if they used Barnes & Noble customers for the current survey?

    Either way, the report goes on and on about e-readers and their sales. Yes, e-readers are ONE way to read e-books but they are NOT the only way by a long shot (e.g. cell phones, computers, tablets).

    If trad publisher think they’ve dodged the worst e-book sales can do to their print sales, I think they’re mistaken.

  7. Oh come on guys and gals, the hints were right there in front of you!

    “From Publishers Weekly” and “In light of the April study”

    It’s just another April fool’s gag from a group that you have to be fools (or trad-pub types with their heads in the sand) to believe.

  8. For Indie Authors the eBook is essential for success. We may not like what those statistics say, and perhaps only Amazon knows the truth, but each Indie Author has his/her own statistics. Did your eBooks go up in sales, stay the same or decline over past year? I can tell you that mine declined, which concurs with the PW/Codex findings. It got to a point that 90% of my sales happens only when I advertise. What is your experience as an Indie Author?

    • Yes, my sales are down. However, last night, I uploaded my first novel in nearly three years.

      I’m pretty sure I know what accounts for my decline. 🙂

      • And the reason is?

        • Lack of product.

          • Yeah, that was what I was thinking. Thanks.

            • I know a lot of people give Dean and Kris crap about building a backlist, but I learned my lesson back in 2011. All the promo in the world won’t keep one book afloat. 😆

          • People may think they’re not seeing a decline, but they’re not taking into account the fact that it’s taking more books just to stay in the same place. That’s what I’m hearing a lot of authors saying.

            • IMHO, if you have a fan, you need to keep feeding that fan product. The more product you feed that fan, the more likely he/she will mention you to a friend with like tastes. At least, that’s been my experience.

              ETA: By the same token, that one fan will buy your book only once.

              Also, if you promise something as a writer, you need to deliver. In readers’ loop I’m on (for a genre I don’t write and yes, they know I’m a writer), a couple of folks were complaining about an indie writer who promised the next novel in February. She’s pushed the release date back three times without an explanation. Not as bad as GRRM, but that kind of stuff does leave a bad taste in readers’ mouths.

              • Ouch. I try not to promise release dates for this reason, but I had one kick me hard this year and I know somebody somewhere is unhappy with me for not delivering. Not a thing I can do about it though. But I do regret even hinting at a release date. I won’t do it again, that’s for sure. Even though the only reason I hinted at a date was because people kept asking me to. I should’ve just stuck to “Nope. I don’t know.” All the missed deadline stuff (soft though it was) has just made it harder to write the book.

            • Based on my experience, it’s true you have to sell more books now than last year, and last year, it took more books than the year before (to achieve the same ranking levels).

              My sales have declined, but what Suzan said. It’s been 4 months since my last release (first title of a new series), and close to 7 months since the last release for my “popular” series.

              The talk about the 30-60-90 day cliff is also true, based on my experience. From 30 to 60, it doesn’t tend to be a massive drop. The drop is slightly more pronounced from 60 to 90, but after 90 days?

              Hoo, boy. Down, down, down.

              • Smart Debut Author

                “…you have to sell more books now than last year, and last year, it took more books than the year before (to achieve the same ranking levels).”

                That’s the exact opposite of an ebook “decline”…

                It means overall storewide ebook sales are up.

            • That’s true. I have 12 book and sliding down.

    • Your sales decline does not concur with the Codex findings. With one likely exception, the print vs ebook sales share is unrelated to the sales of any one author or story. Your sales are completely unaffected by and unrelated to the alleged decline in ebook sales. If there was a decline in ebook market share (and the evidence for that is weak), it came entirely from the Big 5. The unit sales of indie ebooks have risen, not declined.

      By the way, the exception to the rule was the ’50 Shades’ trilogy, which measurably increased the size of the market and temporarily shifted the sales mix towards ebooks.

  9. I could teach a course called “How to turn your survey data into propaganda” with this report as the only example.

    Let’s start with the blatantly false statement:

    First, electronic devices are optional for reading books (unlike for listening to music or watching video)

    That’s not true. There are many ways to listen to music that don’t involve electronic devices. There have even been reports of people listening to music as it is performed live. You know, just like people have done since prehistoric times. And, spoiler alert, you can watch video on these things called televisions. You may have heard of them. Where does he think the 30% of music spending and 41% of video spending on non-digital formats is going?

    And then there are the statements that have no basis in fact:

    the current range of e-book reading devices—including smartphones, tablets, and dedicated e-readers—has not delivered the quality long-form reading experience needed to supplant print

    There’s just no evidence in his data to support that statement.

    The Codex survey also found that though book buyers stated they spent almost five hours of daily personal time on screens, 25% of book buyers, including 37% of those 18–24 years old, want to spend less time on their digital devices. Since consumers almost always have the option to read books in physical formats, they are indicating a preference to return to print.

    No, that’s a blatant misinterpretation of the survey results. First of all, the survey could have simply asked the question: “Would you prefer to read more books in print and less in ebook format than you do now?”. Why would you go at this question so indirectly?

    The simple answer is to get the answer you want. If you wanted to get at the truth, you would ask a completely different set of questions. There is a perception that some people (especially younger people) are spending too much time on their devices, asking the question the way they did (and asking no follow up question) ensures the result they want, just like asking people if they voted always leads to estimates of voter participation that are too high.

    I could go on here, but I’ve got stuff to do.

  10. Since Amazon is in its eighth straight quarter of loss and has had to cancel Kindle Unlimited for lack of books, I guess they were right. People did abandon Amazon. I can’t even find a book I want on there anymore. I guess I’m going to have to go to Barnes and Noble.

    (I’m an excellent fiction writer. Perhaps I could get a contract to publish?)

  11. Digital fatigue, huh? Well, I’ve got wrist fatigue, because I just finished reading a bunch of fat library paperbacks. I’m happy to be back on my Kindle reading a bundle I just purchased.

  12. I personally think all this hype about the decline in ebook reading is just that – a bunch of puffed up hype. Who does this rumor benefit? Not Amazon. The traditional publishers? Yeah, definitely.

    So who are these lofty, mysterious 5,000?

    They’re certainly not me nor my friends. We all eread. Some of them like the feel of books, but I think the majority of them eread. Some folks do both.

    As for cheap ereaders, go over to Amazon and get yourself a Kindle fire for $49 bucks. You can read ebooks on it, and it’s a tablet too. Pretty nice little device.

    I’ve read this line before, in various articles – that ereading and ereaders are on the decline. THAT’S CRAP!

    Paperless is the future of everything folks. Those who say it’s not are folks who are in denial and trying to turn back progress.

  13. > the current range of e-book reading devices—including smartphones, tablets, and dedicated e-readers—has not delivered the quality long-form reading experience needed to supplant print,

    what is wrong with the reading experience with e-readers that makes them unsuitable for long-form reading?

    yes, there is the speedreader problem where the e-readers can have trouble keeping up with the very fast readers, but is that really the problem? or do e-readers need to add scratch-n-sniff stickers/covers to give the ‘books smell’ to people?

    > even with e-books’ major price and convenience advantages.

    what price advantage? (for traditional publishers) It’s cheaper to buy a paper book than the e-book.

  14. Smart Debut Author

    Just imagine a world where reporting on other industries was as incompetent as the coverage of publishing…

    Suffering from telephone fatigue, Americans just aren’t communicating any more, according to the latest stats from the Telephone Booth Manufacturers Organization

    Military spending down 98%, as measured by a recent survey of 45 American swordsmiths and fletchers

    “The snowboarding fad is over, kids under 18 are all returning to skiing in droves”, says CEO of money-losing ski manufacturer

    There’s nothing like the smell and feel of real photographic paper; digital pixels will never replace pictures developed from film,” says CEO of Kodak

    🙂

    • Honey, have I got some news for you…

      Most of the analysts who report businesses rely on whatever the executives tell them. The kind of reporting errors and sloppy inspecifity we see in the publishing stories are standard for all business stories. I bet Data Guy has lots of fun tales from the trenches of Video Games analysis.

      • Smart Debut Author

        Hey, MKS,

        True enough. But it’s a matter of degree, mainly. I’ve never seen industry coverage as bad as what we get in publishing.

        Even the most respected publishing industry “news” sites, like PW, have far more in common with the National Enquirer than the Economist.

        The weirdest part is what happens when general news outlets like The New York Times cover publishing: any other industry, and they attempt to present both sides of the story, point and counterpoint, do a little background research, or at least a modicum of fact checking. But when it comes to publishing, they’ll print any old crap the industry middlemen want them to, and amplify it with transparently biased editorials of their own.

        DG may indeed have some fun tales about the video game industry. But I’m willing to bet he’s never seen an article claiming that gamers are suffering “mobile fatigue” and returning en masse to coin-op arcades. 😀

    • You know, I constantly kick myself that I didn’t get started in self-publishing soon enough. It would have been nice to be ahead of the curve.

      Then I read stuff like this and laugh. I’m so thrilled the big publishers are still trying to pretend this isn’t a revolutionary change. Go for it! Keep investing in your print distribution monopoly. Keep trying to convince readers that ebooks suck.

      I’ve got some more writing to do to build up a back catalogue.

  15. How to make lotsa $$$ as a consultant: Tell the client what they want to hear, even if it’s total BS. 🙂

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