Hardcover Darwinism

By Jon F. Merz

The latest news in the book trade is that for the first quarter of 2012, ebooks outperformed hardcovers. According to this article at Galleycat, ebooks sales were $282.3 million while hardcovers accounted for $229.6 million. That’s a difference of $52.7 million. That figure is compelling enough on its own, but now take a look at the incredible swing that happened over Q1 results from 2011: adult ebook sales a year ago were $220.4 million while hardcovers still held a commanding lead at $335 million. In one year, hardcovers saw their lead evaporate to the tune of over a hundred million dollars, while ebooks continued their steady march to dominance by posting a nearly 30% surge.

Additionally, while hardcovers still do well in the YA segment, ebooks are gaining ground there as well, shooting up 233% to sales of $64.3 million.

So what’s the takeaway from these figures? For one thing, it shows that there is still continued growth in ebook adoption by consumers everywhere. Despite the holdouts in the publishing industry claiming otherwise, ebooks are continuing to account for more and more market share, which means that more and more publishers will attempt to grab those digital rights in an attempt to prolong their own existence. After all, if they can tie up digital rights until the end of time (agents *should* be hard at work redefining what out-of-print means so that an author’s digital rights aren’t locked up forever, but…) then they’ve given themselves a stable income stream. Lock up enough ebooks and publishers can make money until the end of time, while still paying authors a crappy royalty.

Another thing these figure show is that Darwinism is at play here. Adapt or die. Publishers have long relied on hardcovers as the mainstay of their revenue, but hardcovers are expensive to produce, warehouse, and ship. That’s why they’re priced higher than any other version of a book (unless the publisher happens to be an idiot and price the ebook at the same price). Given both the economic conditions and the migration to ebooks, hardcovers are now in trouble. If less people are buying them than before (and again, hardcovers sold over one hundred million dollars LESS than they did a year ago) then publishers have yet another toll of the bell happening here.

Finally, one of the talking points traditional publishers have used to try to justify themselves and keep their appeal from eroding even further among authors is that a traditional publishing deal is valuable for the distribution in bookstores. Hardcovers and trade paperbacks on store shelves do indeed mean that you are reaching a larger potential audience than if you just publish ebooks. HOWEVER, the counter to this argument is fairly simple: there are now less bookstores than there have been in the past. Borders is gone. More indies are vanishing. And the numbers above show that less people are buying hardcovers. So if less people are buying hardcovers and more people are buying ebooks, that little nugget that traditional publishers like to dangle as an incentive for settling for crappy royalty rates, lower advances, and the myth of publisher marketing suddenly becomes less of a nugget and more of a “so what?”

If more people are buying ebooks and fewer people are buying printed books, then distribution is no longer about getting in bookstores. It becomes about putting your ebooks up at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, iBooks, Smashwords, Booktango, Overdrive, direct on your website, and any other ebook platform smart enough to offer indie authors a way to reach readers.

And guess what?

Authors don’t need a traditional publisher in New York City to do that. They can do it themselves. In about fifteen minutes.

I’m one of the beta users on Kobo’s new Writing Life platform and it’s one of the best I’ve used to-date. The interface is smooth, intuitive, and friendly. The sales data gives you geographical snapshots of where the majority of your purchases are coming from. Kobo’s done an excellent job delivering more intelligence to indie authors so we can best figure out how to market our works to various demographics. (I’ll be writing a full blog post on Kobo’s Writing Life at a later date, but for now rest assured I happen to think it’s great.)

And authors can now do this while earning 70% royalties on their work. You know, instead of that insulting 17.5% that NYC offers as “standard.”

Traditional publishing has ignored the pull of evolution to its own detriment. The industry has faltered due to its own massive ego and a steadfast refusal to embrace change. Some of them are now scrambling to catch up, and for those authors who don’t want to do anything business-related, they will still provide some level of service and benefit. But the times are changing. The bestseller lists that matter are no longer printed in the fading pages of a black-and-white anachronism, but rather in the pixelized world of instant reader interaction, virality, and global consumerism.

Traditional publishing now more then ever resembles that annoying pinky toe – you know, the one you just want to chop off as soon as you break it because you see how little value it truly has left.

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