My latest Talking Indie column is now posted at Talking Writing Magazine. The title is “Why Aren’t More People Reading E-Books?” We did a heck of a lot of research on available reading preference statistics to come up with this piece. My initial draft was full of all sorts of numbers and data set links. Fortunately, I have editors who are gifted and insightful. The piece does not hammer you with data. The main point is that while e-books continue to get all sorts of media and blogger hype, the majority of readers (in the Western world) are still slow to accept this new technology.
That’s changing fast, though. Last summer this preference data gave fuel to those contrarians who, for whatever reason, are threatened by digital books. There’s no question that this technology is rocking the status quo profit centers in publishing houses. And since electronic text is only logically purchased online, independent bookstores everywhere feel that the writing is now on their walls. Growth in e-book markets slowed fairly dramatically last year — from something close to 250% two years ago to 43% in the early part of 2013. Hopefully you’ll see what’s going on after reading my column. Technology adoption goes in steps. We are now moving beyond the “innovator/early adopter” step.
Nothing is a given, of course. It will be interesting to see how many tablets and e-readers are purchased over the holidays this year. Obviously statistics on ebook purchases in December and January should be watched as well. I think a lot more people understand the validity of electronic books this year than did last year. A USA Today study came out recently showing that electronic reading technologies were now in the hands of over 40% of the country.
Here’s the rub, though. Virtually everyone in the US has a cell phone. Shoot, virtually everyone in the world has one! A lot of folks do their Internet reading on their phones — that means news, blogs, and books. No one really knows how many people are reading books with their phones. That means, whatever stats popping up about e-readers and tablet apps for books only tell part of the story. If you read my column you’ll get a bit more on this rub.
All the sales data on e-books is kind of only half-meaningful too. There are thousands of non-copyright classics out there you can pick up for free in dozens of places. Plus, of course, many Indie books — even some legacy-published books — can be had for free as well if you know where to look.
My original intent with this column was to caution Indie authors about making a huge effort to follow marketing and sales advice from so-called experts since the e-book market is growing faster and in more ways than anyone really understands. Whatever seemed like it was working in a marketplace driven by early adopters is likely not going to be as effective once the larger strata of consumers enters the fray.
My concern here comes from spending the last two years getting sidetracked almost daily by the overwhelming need to read every piece of book marketing advice I could find. That can make you crazy. I have written here about how I was sometimes spending 90% of my day reading business info on books and only 5% of my time working on my novels and stories. I thought I could overcome these procrastinatory tendencies simply by vowing to do better. But it’s not that easy. Especially when you are actually trying to earn your living through book sales (please buy my books, by the way).
What was required, though, was a lot of research into what was really going on out there. How many people in today’s world are reading e-books? How many people are NOT reading e-books? Once I figured out that no one really knows, it made things a lot simpler. I still enjoy time reading the latest info at places like PassiveVoice, Jane Friedman’s blog, and Anne Allen’s site, but I don’t let myself get lost in all that stuff. Because NO ONE KNOWS WHAT’S REALLY GOING ON!
It’s all about blind people poking around and describing the weird giant thing they are sensing.
All I can tell you is that in my opinion we are just now beginning to move to the majority consumer moment in this weird world. The best indicator here is not “readers” per se, it’s college and high school students (you know, right?, that they are the future book market for us all). I heard a quick NPR newspiece last month indicating that the dam is beginning to burst with students. It’s all about cost. My high school senior opted this year to just use the online (not even downloadable) version of his calculus text. Savings? $180.00. Need I say more? Go check this out if you really need more.
Let me just finish with this: I’m not (NOT) saying that print books are done. I’m also not saying that bookstores are or should be cooked. All I’m saying is that e-books are slowly becoming the main option in a whole bunch of different scenarios. Most genre fiction readers, from sci-fi to romance and mystery, have already figured out they can build a massive electronic library of pulp fiction for pennies on the dollar. And why would you buy a 19th century novel at Barnes and Noble for $25.00 when you can download it for free from iBooks or Google? The average college student pays over $3000 a year for text books. If you had an electronic option, would you be able to find a better use for that $3000? It’s all about appropriate technology.
I’ll leave you with this. I have piles of books all over my house. I also have over 300 books on my iPad, about 30 books on my cell phone, and 89 on my Kindle. Last summer I read almost exclusively on all three of these technologies. This fall when Thomas Pynchon’s new novel, Bleeding Edge, came out I went to Amazon to buy it. I was confronted with a dilemma. The hardback version was priced at $18.61. The e-book version was $12.99. That price difference seemed crazy. I ordered the hardback, but something in my head just kept ticking and clicking and sticking.
The book came in the mail two days later (Amazon is amazing!). I opened up the package and started reading. About two pages in I was enjoying Pynchon’s ironic, over-the-top writing as always (the dude is a genius!), but that ticking, clicking, sticking point got louder and stickier and more obvious: I really wished I was reading the damn thing as an e-book. Partly, my reasoning may be based on the fact that this particular novel is all about the digital/Internet era. But after a summer of e-booking, it may also be that I’m learning new habits and new expectations. Only time will tell, I guess.
Go read my column at TW. Make sure to lend your comments and thoughts to the piece when you’re done. And then go check out all the other amazing work at Talking Writing and consider subscribing. If you care about words and are a committed writer … or reader, there’s a lot of stuff at TW that goes far deeper than your average magazine.
For a list of the best blogs I know of on independent publishing and e-books, see my “Talking Indie” page.
Happy Thanksgiving and thanks for reading.