Why are e-book sales declining? 5 possible reasons

Why are e-book sales declining? 5 possible reasons

According to this

Publishers Weekly post by Jim Milliot

which is reporting on figures released by the AAP (Association of American Publishers), e-book sales were

“…down 2.5% and 36.6% in the adult and children’s/young adult categories, respectively”

That’s right…not just slowed growth, but actual decline.

I have expected e-books sales to continue to grow for some time yet, eventually becoming more than fifty percent of unit sales.

I still think that’s likely.

These figures, then, come as a bit of a surprise to me.

Let me give you five possibilities as to why this might be the case:

1. Other e-book sales, which aren’t being measured here, have grown: I think this is highly likely. The AAP doesn’t typically include independent publishers using platforms like Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing. I fall into that category (I only have published books I’ve written, but if you make your book available to the public, you are a publisher), and they don’t ask me. I think it may be like what I refer to as “indieployment”. Unemployment figures get lamented, and certainly, for people who want to work and can’t find work, that’s a bad thing. However, I think some of the people being counted as unemployed are making a living outside of the traditional system, and that includes authors who publish their books themselves. My guess is that there are enough people making a living (and a significant portion of them happily…at least as happily as they would as employees of a company) in creative endeavors, selling things on eBay, being Uber drivers, is inflating the number. If readers are increasingly moving away from traditionally published books to independently published books, I would expect the AAP’s figures to decline.

2. Subsers are cutting into sales: it’s hard to tell how much this is having an impact, because the AAP supposedly is able to measure some of this impact. Still, I think people who use subscription services, like

Kindle Unlimited (at AmazonSmile: benefit a non-profit of your choice by shopping*)

Oyster, and Scribd, probably don’t get measured with the same weight as those who purchase. Amazon having entered that market makes measurement perhaps even less likely, since they are notoriously tight-lipped about things like sales figures.

3. E-books were a fad: I think this is very unlikely, but it’s something that will occur to a lot of casual observers. One argument for it would be that tablets (including Amazon’s own Fire tablets) have supplanted EBRs (E-Book Readers, like Amazon’s Voyage) over the past few years as reading devices. When you have a tablet, though, you also have other options, like movies and full video games, and that cuts into book purchases. I just don’t see that a lot of people have abandoned e-books in favor of going back to p-books (although p-book sales have been increasing).

4. There were anomalistically popular books which created a false high: brick-and-mortar bookstores (I’m a former manager) made this argument the year after 50 Shades  of Grey. Sales were so extraordinarily high for that book (I could say they were “unbound”, but I think I won’t…spanking good sales, perhaps?) that the following year, even though things were fine, compared unfavorably. I don’t think that’s it, here, and I think certainly this year, sales of the Harper Lee books will make another book boom.

5. More units are being sold at lower prices: it appears to me that this decline is based on total sale amounts, not how many books are being sold. If that’s the case, it would be possible  that people are buying more books, but paying less. If a person bought five books at $9.99 each one year, and ten books at $0.99 each the next year, unit sales would increase while the sales amount would decrease. I’m a bit skeptical about this one…I don’t think prices have dropped significantly in the past year, and New York Times fiction hardback equivalent bestseller prices (I track those in my monthly Snapshots) have increased. I suppose it’s possible that independently published books, which are the majority in the Kindle store, have been going down in price…but I don’t know why the would have, particularly…and I certainly haven’t noticed a one  third drop in children’s/young adult e-book prices.

I’ll sum this up this way: I’m not worried about America’s state of literacy and love of books, or the e-book format’s viability, based on this report.🙂

What do you think? Why are these numbers lower? Could it be because book quality has declined? Reading overall has declined? People go so fed up with the legal and contract stuff, like the Hachazon War (the battle between Amazon and publisher Hachette) that they are just giving up on e-books? The numbers are significantly wrong? Feel free to tell me and my readers what you think by commenting on this post.

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* I am linking to the same thing at the regular Amazon site, and at AmazonSmile. When you shop at AmazonSmile, half a percent of your purchase price on eligible items goes to a non-profit you choose. It will feel just like shopping at Amazon: you’ll be using your same account. The one thing for you that is different is that you pick a non-profit the first time you go (which you can change whenever you want)…and the good feeling you’ll get. :) Shop ’til you help! :) By the way, it’s been interesting lately to see Amazon remind me to “start at AmazonSmile” if I check a link on the original Amazon site. I do buy from AmazonSmile, but I have a lot of stored links I use to check for things.

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog. To support this or other blogs/organizations, buy  Amazon Gift Cards from a link on the site, then use those to buy your items. There will be no cost to you, and a benefit to them.

22 Responses to “Why are e-book sales declining? 5 possible reasons”

  1. dorachild Says:

    Another factor in the decline in ebook sales is people (like myself) are downloading ebooks for free from their local libraries by using the Overdrive app.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, dorachild!

      I thought about making public libraries one of the five possibilities…but I’m not sure how much Overdrive borrowing has increased in the past year. The publishers have been relaxing some of the restrictions they place on public libraries, but I don’t know that library borrowing is enough to affect the sales. If the publishers decide it is, those restrictions may get tighter again…

  2. Kari M Says:

    Lot lower decrease in adult books, which could be a statistical error. The decrease in children’s books is totally understandable — there is something children like about the tactile feel. They get more involved in the books than they do with an e-reader or tablet. They expect different things. At 6 months, my son knew that anything on a screen was supposed to move and books were for manipulating. As an adult, he still prefers books to e-readers, especially graphic novels. Plus books help children with eye/hand motor skills much better than an electronic device.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Kari!

      I’d be surprised if it is an error. E-books for kids (remember, that includes young adult) had some real blockbusters which could have ramped up sales a couple of years ago (Hunger Games, the Insurgent series) and I don’t think there’s been a breakout series like that this year.

      Even talking about younger children’s books, I’d question why that discovery would just be happening in the last year. The rise of tablets should have helped with story/picture book sales for e-books…color, interactivity.

  3. Lady Galaxy Says:

    Could it be that most people who ever wanted e-readers now have them and that new e-reader sales are going to folks who are upgrading? I think when people get that first Kindle or Nook or other device, they tend to want to start filling it up I know I bought more books when I first got my Kindle because it had been close to 10 years since I’d been able to read due to eye issues, and I was making up for lost time.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Lady!

      It’s an interesting hypothesis. It would go like this: only committed readers (which are a tiny minority) were going to buy an EBR (E-Book Reader). They’ve bought them, and, as you suggest, have now settled into more of a routine than the initial bolus of buying. I think something that would affect that is how much reading on a non-EBR (especially tablets) is part of the picture, and if the gift of an e-book is seen as equivalent to the gift of p-book (paperbook). A lot of book buying is for gifts (especially for children). People who are at best casual readers need to become as satisfied with giving what amounts to a gift card as they are with gift wrapping a physical book…

  4. Edward Boyhan Says:

    My sense is some combination of #’s 1,3,5. I would guess mostly 1 & 5. AAP statistics these days woefully undercount — the decline in adult sales might actually reflect an underlying decline in sales overall for tradpubs — as more and more sales shift to indie channels. Indie books (as you say in #5) are generally lower priced than tradpub published books. AAP stats are almost certainly $ denominated — not unit sales (these kinds of problems are endemic to retail industries where providers do not explicitly report unit & dollar volumes — I see it all the time in things like PC sales estimates).

    Bottom line: my sense is this is probably bad news for tradpubs, but not for indies, or the ebook phenomenon generally. For things like PC’s, there are ways to come at counts indirectly by looking at certain kinds of internet download stats, but there’s nothing comparable for books. The publishing industry has always been opaque about this kind of reporting.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Edward!

      I think tradpubs may learn that just being there may not be enough any more…

  5. Tom Semple Says:

    I’d certainly include the return of Agency pricing on ebooks as a significant factor. I assume AAP Snapshot does not include indie publishers, and I think people are not snapping up tradpub best sellers as much, or are opting for indie ebooks or hardcover instead (because the latter don’t cost that much more and can be resold, lent out etc.). I think it is quite possible that ebook sales and readership continue to grow briskly but it’s outside of what AAP can observe.

    In my case, I’m mostly using KU and borrowing from public library instead of buying books (and working through a backlog of over 200 purchased and unread books). I’ve stopped purchasing technology ebooks entirely (for work) and am using subscription for that instead. I used to buy the occasional tradpub book of my favorite authors when they were priced below $10 but by and large they aren’t being offered at those prices any longer, so I’m not buying them. I’m reading as much as ever, however, and don’t feel like I’m missing anything.

    No doubt tradpubs consider this trend some sort of success, but if I were one of their shareholders or authors, I would have some hard questions about how suppressing digital sales by this pricing strategy maximizes profits, given that they are getting fewer sales overall and providing every incentive to take one’s reading elsewhere. Speaking from experience, I think digital buyers not only read more, but tend to have a much higher purchase-to-read ratio, since it is so easy to buy things and never find time to read what you’ve bought. If you buy physical books, they stand silent witness on shelves or stacked in piles and that tends to serve as a reality check about book buying habits.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Tom!

      I agree with much of what you say. I do think it’s likely people are actually reading more, but in ways that aren’t being measured by that specific report.

      I think the argument to the shareholders (where that is the case) may be about going for the long term. The argument may be that the future money is not in digital, but in returning books to being luxury items. Will digital buyers actually pay significant money for books in five years? Tradpubs can argue that they can continue to monetize (and largely monopolize, unless something happens with print-on-demand, perhaps) the luxury book market.

  6. Tom Semple Says:

    I think the YA decline is easily explained. We had no truly big sellers in that category in Jan-Mar this year. Last year, if memory serves, we had Divergent, The Fault In Our Stars, etc. as part of runup to movie adaptations.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Tom!

      Yes, that goes along with my reason #4. Paper Towns should get a big boost this year. The last Hunger Games movie (based on the original books) comes out at the end of the year…that’s likely to produce another bump for all of the books.

  7. Lukas Aguilera Says:

    It’s very simple, I am a french writer in the adult and I withdrew all my books for one reason: the royalties paid by Amazon.
    All my books were registered in the Kindle Unlimited and today I have enjoyed no reason to leave them for the price that I paid.
    Here Is. Sorry for my English, I used Google Translation

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Lukas!

      I use Google translation myself.🙂

      The first question would be whether or not you were part of the AAP survey for last year and this year. I’m guessing that’s not the case (especially if you publish in France). If not, your books wouldn’t have affected these numbers.

      Second, I’m curious: have you found another place that is actually paying you higher royalties than you were getting with Amazon?

      • Lukas Aguilera Says:

        In fact what I wanted to say is if there is less than book this year, it is perhaps also because of the self-published in these categories.

        Otherwise, I did not find any other place to be better paid .
        I seriously think amazon will turn back !🙂

        Thank you for your answer !

      • Bufo Calvin Says:

        Thanks for writing, Lukas!

        There may be fewer books available, as you suggest. However, I don’t think that’s been the case in the books measured in this study.

        I hope you find a good arrangement for your royalties! Amazon is experimenting, yes, and nothing is forever…but I think many authors have made far more with Amazon than they would have made without it.

  8. thomasjohnedison Says:

    E-book sales are dwindling due to the increase in Kindle Unlimited readers (‘Free books’ for $9.99 per month), E-book sales are dwindling for Amazon authors and this means Amazon sales are taking a dive. The only way to combat this is to sell e-books at bottom prices – $0.99 @ 35% royalty – $2.99 @ 70% royalties as opposed to $0.0002 per page read … and not a lot of pages get read due to the quality of readers.

    I believe more professional readers will turn to paper, around 5% of them, readers who are tired of wading through amazon’s giant SLUSH-PILE, readers who recognise quality in writing, people who want to be entertained, not like the reader who just wants to be seen ‘reading electric’ on his or her apparatus.

    The fact is, Amazon is still making money but paying authors less.
    Kindle Unlimited is killing e-book cash sales and catering only to low-grade readers. E-books are still being read, but only the ones obtained for $9.99 per month on Amazons KU pages read scam- $0.0002 per pag

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, thomasjohnedison!

      I assume that some authors are being paid less, and some are being paid more. Amazon doesn’t release those figures…and neither do traditional publishers, typically.

      As a happy member of Kindle Unlimited since the beginning, and knowing others, my personal experience doesn’t match your characterization of those readers…or the books available, in my opinion.

      Certainly, it’s possible that you don’t consider authors like J.R.R. Tolkien, Oliver Sacks, or James Jones to be quality writing, and that’s your option. All of them have books in Kindle Unlimited.

      I have also read lesser known books through Kindle Unlimited that I thought were quality works: I would include A Truth Worth Tellin’ by Toni Teepell in that group.

      Again, you might disagree.

      Given that I am in one of those people to which you are referring as “low-grade”, I presume you may not particularly value my opinion on this…I do, however, appreciate you expressing yours.

      You aren’t the only person who feels that way. You don’t say whether you are an author or not, but undeniably, there are authors whose payments have declined because of Kindle Unlimited. They have been hurt by the change, and that would be understandably concerning to them. There are likely to be others which have benefited. They might feel differently.

  9. thomasjohnedison Says:

    It is time for change on Amazon.
    While searching for something worthwhile to read on amazon (not an easy task and very time-demanding) it has come to my notice that books with the ‘Kindle Unlimited’ logo are the ones with minimum or no sales at all; and most of these books have no comments or just the one.
    Can it be that most amazon readers are now turning to Kindle Unlimited books as a way of finding good reading material (and I use that term loosely with regards to amazon e-books) The con is the ‘Free books with Kindle Unlimited. But the dummies falling for this only do so after paying $9.99 a MONTH.
    How many books would you get for that amount @ $0.99 – $1.99 – $2.99 – $3-99 – $4.99 and so on – 2, 3, 4 or 5.
    How many books can a person read in one month. I don’t mean skip-read – – skipping pages full of clutter, useless info, back-story crap. I mean well-written books from authors of note that are too numerous to mention or their genres, book lengths – short stories and anthologies.
    KINDLE UNLIMITED IS KILLING READERSHIP VALUES. No longer do readers search for something worthwhile (such as your book that you slaved over). NO!, They now take a dozen or so books a day and skip through them, dropping the crap ones and reading what interests them AFTER PAYING AMAZON AND NOT YOU.
    My husband’s sales dropped 70% as this scam started. He is now either giving them away on other sites such as Wattpad, or selling them on Lulu and Smashwords. He keeps the price for single books below the cost of a cup of coffee, some even at $0.99. He writes mostly short stories and bad-mouths amazon kindle as often as possible with e-mails. He has removed all his 70+ books from kindle telling amazon that he wants readers to pay him for his books and not amazon.
    Another thing; you don’t really believe that crap about 11 – 12 million dollars for ‘pages read’. The figure is actually in the 50-60 billion – every year and how long has Kindle been running …. And they are still shelling out peanuts. When I posted the news that my husband removed all his books, one comment was – “More money for us”. Yes, well, that’s what dreams are made of, be an author and get rich. So, tell me, how many of you have recently bought a yacht, a villa in the South of France and how many of you are earning millions… AND- how many of you are not.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, thomasjohnedison!

      Clearly, you are passionate about this, and I appreciate you sharing your opinion with my readers.

      I think you might be sharing an e-mail address to post? Or perhaps this is your second comment on the topic….

      I also think we have different impressions of Kindle Unlimited and our fellow readers who choose to use it. I do agree that Kindle Unlimited is likely to be negatively impacting individual book sales, but not necessarily negatively impacting reading. My guess is that some casual readers may be reading more with KU, as well as perhaps some readers of lesser means. For a more serious reader like me, I don’t think it’s had much of an impact…I don’t think I’m reading more or fewer, just different ones.

      As to this all capitals statement: “KINDLE UNLIMITED IS KILLING READERSHIP VALUES.”, I’m unclear why you think that’s the case. It seems to concern you that readers would be “…reading what interests them.” Would you prefer that they read books which don’t interest them? The latter suggests a less discriminating reader to me, not one which is more so.

      I’m also curious about any information you might have about people downloading multiple books a day to evaluate them. I haven’t run into that, even anecdotally. Yes, I’ve heard of people downloading a couple before settling on one to read…but I would think a dozen would be rare.

      Your husband is certainly welcome to do what he wants with his books, but again, I’m unclear on the strategy. How does removing the books from Amazon help reach readers? I assume they were removed from the store altogether, not just Kindle Unlimited? Perhaps the intent is just to deprive Amazon of its share (which you may consider to be unfair) of the sales? That could be a moral stand, which I can appreciate. I don’t intentionally link to books which block text-to-speech access, for example, which may lose me money. That may be more important to your husband than having people read the books. However, since he is also giving the books away, it seems like readers might also matter?

      Very few authors have ever made “yacht” level money…in any system of compensation. That tends to be the case in creative endeavors.

      I’m also quite confused by your 50-60 billion dollar figure for pages read. I think that’s quite unlikely to be a royalty figure from Amazon, or profit for Amazon from selling books. As you probably know, Amazon has only recently been reporting a profit…much to the concern of some investors.🙂

      I hope your husband finds a way to reach readers that satisfies him, wherever that may be. As a writer myself, I know there are always choices to make in not only what you write, but how you choose to make your works available to readers (if you do that at all…not everyone does).

  10. James Says:

    I think it comes back to the simple but honest fact people still prefer to have to have a physical book in hand than a tablet. In the end you can place it on the shelf and see your investment / sell it even. You can do so with ebooks. Nor can you pass them down or offer them as gifts. I think as time passes the old paper book will show it is far from gone!

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thank for writing, James!

      I don’t know if I would describe that as a “fact”, unless you specify that it is “some people”, rather than the implicit “all people”.🙂 I think my Significant Other had the best line when, early in our use of the Kindle, someone sort of sneeringly said, “I like the feel of a book in my hand.” My SO said, “I like the feel of a hundred in mine.”🙂

      I think that the more you love books, the more you love e-books. That’s, of course, if you define a book as what the author wrote (and the editor edited), rather than the book’s container.

      Before I address your specific points, I think it’s key that loving e-books certainly doesn’t indicate not liking p-books (paperbooks), or suggests that they won’t be around in the future. I think that’s a common conflation, that’s it’s an either/or. New vinyl records are being released, despite the majority of music being enjoyed in digital formats. I’m an inveterate booklover, which means books in all formats…again, it’s not the container that matters so much, but each container does have its own pluses and minuses.

      As to your points:

      It is far easier for me to see my books on my digital device than it is to see my p-books. I do have about ten thousand p-books on shelves in my home, but that’s not all of them…some are, unfortunately, in boxes. For the books on my shelves, some of them are, by necessity, hidden behind other books, as you can see in this post:

      https://ilmk.wordpress.com/2015/05/25/our-library-with-photos/

      I have to say, I find your focus on the monetary value of the books to be a bit…different from why I enjoy books. You talk about “your investment” and selling them. I’ve actually never sold a book I’ve owned…I’ve given them away but I don’t buy them with the intent to make a profit on the physical object. That certainly would give you and me different valuations for books.

      At least with the USA Kindle store (different stores and different Amazon sites may have different rules), I can and often do give books as gifts. Not ones that I’ve bought for myself first, but I can buy an e-book as a gift for someone. I think one of my favorite gifts we gave recently was when we gave a family with two school-age children a six month subscription to Kindle Unlimited. That can really be a life changer, with a lot of great titles available to them. We also gave p-books to other people this year, and have given that same family some p-books in the past…but this will be great for them.

      In terms of passing them on, I’ve said many times that I am more confident that my descendants would have access to my e-books thirty years from now than that they would have access to my p-books. The Millenial generation doesn’t tend, at least at this point in the USA, to buy homes which would have room for 10,000 p-books. Inheriting those will be a burden. Someone with access to my account now will have access to the books after my death as well, as I understand it. I spoke about that recently on The Kindle Chronicles podcast, and I’ve written about it before…I can give you more information, if you like, but I should stress that I am not a lawyer, and what I know would apply in the USA.

      Another thing I like, and I think booklovers tend to like, about e-books, is that it is much easier to share them with people on the same account than it is with p-books. Typically, from the USA Kindle store, six people on an account can be reading the same book at the same time…for one download price. With a p-book, we would have to pass around the single copy, and when your friends/relatives don’t live near you, that simply didn’t work very well.

      So, I do think you are right if one of your main goals in getting a book is to make money on it by eventually getting rid of it, p-books are much better suited. If your goal is to actually read the book, e-books are one good option.

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