Ebooks Are Dead! Long Live Ebooks?
The prevailing narrative in all coverage of the publishing industry for 2016 was that ebooks are dying. Ereaders are dead! (But just ignore that bit about increased tablet and smartphone sales.) Long live the paperback! (But pretend you don’t see the adult coloring book bubble bursting in the discount bin of your local WalMart.) Yet any indie author worth their salt knows that's all bunk. Amazon doesn’t report its numbers to the major clearing houses most trad publishers follow for industry news, which means these reports routinely fail to track indie ebook sales. And let's face it, Amazon is where indie authors do the vast majority of their business. But number crunchers need data to crunch and journalists need press releases to repackage, so the Big Five spent all of 2016 telling everyone who would listen that ebooks are going tits up.
So this little nugget of a report feels like a big, fat raspberry.
The TL;DR summary: Overdrive, the largest third-party provider of ebooks for public libraries and schools in the US, reported a 16% year-over-year increase in ebook borrows. And buried in the original report is another juicy tidbit: the borrowing of self-published titles increased 40%. FORTY percent. In ONE year.
I mean, of course library borrows are up while trad publishers' ebook sales are down. Because who in their right mind would pay $14.99 for the latest J.R. Ward novel when they can wait and pay zero at the library? Especially when that $14.99 will net you five more self-published romances of equal quality. Any high school econ student can draw you the supply/demand graph. If you're an indie author, rejoice, because market forces are bitch-slapping New York whether they want to admit it or not. Then go price your book for $2.99, pay for editing your trad publisher probably would have skimped on anyway, and get a cover artist who will actually listen to you. Then be Thea Harrison and tell New York KTHXBYE with your hit release. Or Ilona Andrews with a book she already had up for free on her website (just don’t ask her about the covers of her series with Avon and the never-ending hazing it's engendered).
Okay fine, so the few people who do actually track indie sales have pointed out that something screwy happened in the ebook market in Q3 2016—sales of indie-published ebooks dropped down to 2015 levels. And the two examples picked above were (deliberately chosen) hybrid authors, authors who had significant trad-published titles and the fanbases those titles came with before launching an indie release. Yet some close-ups of the data indicate that the problem with ebook sales overall probably has less to do with the death of the ereader and more to do with Big Five actively strangling ebook sales with poor pricing strategies, especially for books from debut authors.
My take? The ebook is far from dead. If you’re a genre fiction author, it’s probably where you’re making most of your income. If you’re a romance author refusing to self-publish, you're just leaving money on the table. And if you believe that brick-and-mortar bookstores are coming back anywhere but in hipster neighborhoods in Seattle, do the math.