An Analysis of Recent Trends in the eBook Industry
By Brian Lopez
In the last decade, the eBook industry has grown considerably and become a substantial portion of unit sales for books. Though the first few generations of eReaders had problems, eventually the medium found success. This success was largely due to early adoption of the medium by readers of romance fiction. This support for eBooks by romance readers eventually led to eBook sales for romance being larger than sales for print books. Recently, the difference between eBook sales and print media sales has begun to lower, with the growth of eBook sales decreasing in recent years. The growth of eBooks has been noted as significant since about 2010 and this growth began decreasing around 2015. Some sources argue that this recent reduced growth is a sign that print media is beginning to be preferred again and that the “fad” of eBooks is coming to an end. In this paper, I will argue that the rise of eBooks with respect to romance fiction can be explained through advantages that the platform of eBooks offers to romance readers over print books and that this recent decrease in the growth of eBook sales is an adjustment by the market to a normal ratio between eBook and print book sales. I will argue that this ratio was not “normal” during this time because of the recency and magnitude of the industry’s growth and because of the behavior of consumers when adopting a new technology.
The History of Digital Books
The first major advancement in eBook technology occurred with Project Gutenberg in 1971. The project was started by Michael Hart after he was given an operator account to access computers in the University of Illinois computer lab. To repay the value of the account he had been given, he chose to type the Declaration of Independence and make the text available to access online. This is considered to be the first eBook and Project Gutenberg is based on the idea that “anything that can be entered into a computer can be reproduced indefinitely” (Gutenberg.org) and works to digitize cultural works to make them available online.
eBooks would later become accessible to consumers in the form of books that had been digitized and stored on physical media. The first company to successfully attempt something like this was The Voyager Company, which launched the “Expanded Books Project” and released their first set of books on CD-ROM in 1992. (Peters and Roberts 114) The first three expanded books were The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, The Complete Annotated Alice, and Jurassic Park. The company would later release a software package called the Expanded Books Toolkit in 1993 that allowed consumers to make their own expanded books. (Martin, 2)
In 1998, the first dedicated eBook readers were released for public consumption. These were the Rocket eBook and the SoftBook. In the same year, Google was founded and US libraries made eBooks available to the public through their web sites. These events are all meaningful because they establish a precedent to the massive growth of the eBook industry that would occur later. The Rocket eBook and SoftBook showed the existence of a potential market for dedicated eReaders and a possible implementation of the technology, Google would later allow consumers to navigate the Internet and find content, and the availability of eBooks through US libraries further exposed potential readers and consumers to the medium.
The rate of advancement of this technology increased significantly in the early 2000s. By 2002, HarperCollins and Random House had started selling digital versions of their print books and Sony released the Librie eReader in 2004 and the Sony Reader in 2006. While these readers were a technological advancement from the Rocket eBook and the SoftBook, they still had some problems and were not as commercially successful as the readers that would come after. In 2007, the Amazon Kindle was released and the iPhone was launched. Barnes & Noble released the Nook in 2009. In 2010, the iPad was released, Google launched their digital bookstore, and for the first time, Amazon eBook sales outnumbered its hardcover book sales. (gpo.gov)
The eBook Advantage
By 2011, one in seven romance readers had purchased an eBook (Flood). At this point in time, there had been a few generation of eReaders released and the product was a lot more user-friendly and eBook sales had been growing for the last few years. This early adoption was encouraged by certain advantages that using eReaders had over just reading print books.
One major benefit of eBooks is the anonymity that they grant through their use. Enjoying romance fiction carries a potential stigma for readers and reduces their comfort with reading books they enjoy in public. Part of what generates this stigma is the design of covers of romance novels, which frequently depict a couple embracing each other. These covers are important for publishers to be able to convey information to readers because certain design decisions about the cover can convey information about the plot of the book, the setting, and the nature of the relationship depicted in the book. Because of their ability to communicate this information to readers, covers are an important part of the advertising campaign of a book. These same elements that are used to make a book stand out to romance readers can also lead to misinterpretation by people not familiar with romance fiction. Upon seeing a romance fiction cover, a person not familiar with the medium may overestimate the amount of erotic content in the novel and not understand its purpose in the narrative of the book. This can lead to judgement of romance readers who like to read in public because their favorite books could be misinterpreted as something closer to pornography. This potential judgement can make romance readers afraid to read books in public. eBooks solve this problem by not displaying a visible cover when they are used, so users do not have to display what they are reading to others in public. The covers of the book are still used and displayed in digital bookstores so readers can still receive the information given through the design of covers when choosing which books they want to purchase.
The technology of eBooks is also more supportive of the reading habits of romance readers than traditional print media. Romance readers have been described as “voracious readers” (Flood) because of their tendency to rapidly consume content. According to Jane Friedman, a publishing consultant, romance readers can buy between five to ten titles at a time, even in physical bookstores and some readers can read up to five books a week (Ha). Because these books can simply be stored on an eReader, digital books are less physically taxing to carry than physical books. In addition to being more convenient to carry, eBooks are also more convenient for readers to buy. Because eBooks are sold through digital stores, readers can access them from anywhere, saving the time it takes to frequently go to physical bookstores to purchase their three to five books per week. Readers also gain the benefit of anonymity when purchasing through a digital bookstore, like the benefit of anonymity when reading in public. When cost and usability of the device were not prohibitive, these advantages over print books were considered enough to convince romance readers to purchase eReaders.
Growth and Decline
The eBook industry continued to grow until it peaked in early 2013. By the end of the second quarter of 2013. eBooks accounted for 30% of units and 14% of sales. These numbers are “about equal to the fourth quarter of 2012” (Milliot, eBooks Settle In). Since then, the market share of eBooks and the percentage of total unit sales it represents has been decreasing over time. According to figures from the Association of American Publishers (AAP), sales of eBooks for trade publishers in 2015 fell 14% compared to 2014. (Milliot, “Digital Fatigue Grows”) Some examples of these losses include a decrease in sales of 0.4% for Random House, 4.7% for HarperCollins, and 1.1% for Hachette. Nielsen Book found that eBook unit sales from reporting publishers were down 16% in 2016 from 2015. (Milliot, “Bad News about eBooks”) When these numbers were reported, news outlets began to speculate that the decrease was caused by “digital fatigue” (Milliot, “Digital Fatigue Grows”) or a desire to use eBook reading devices less after having extensively used them for a long period, like several months or years. Sometimes this fatigue can renew a preference for print books, leading some news outlets to make the more extreme conclusion that digital fatigue will eventually lead to eReaders being so unpopular that print media will dominate book sales again and substantially reduce the eBook market. While there is still speculation regarding recent trends in eBook sales, some contributing factors are known.
One factor that has influenced sales of eBooks is the behavior of consumers when adapting to new technology. The strongest month for eBook sales has historically been January. These sales are attributed to readers purchasing many titles for devices that they were given over the holidays. As Evan Schnittman, former VP of sales at Hachette, has said “we all know what happens when we first get a new device- we go a little crazy and buy lots of books.” (Albanese and Reid). This implies that large product releases for eReaders boost sales of eBooks as consumers purchase content for the device. In the last several years, there has not been a large product release with respect to eReaders that would create a boost in sales comparable to the release of the Kindle or the iPad. In addition to this, consumers have been shown to be shifting towards using their phones and smart devices for reading eBooks rather than devices dedicated to being eReaders. This shift in behavior would also reduce the impact of a new product launch because less consumers would purchase the product to replace their primary means of eBook consumption and less people would have to purchase a lot of content in January for a new device.
The recently observed decrease in eBook market share and sales is not an indication of the eBook industry failing but rather an adjustment of the market share of the eBook industry to a stable level. I argue that the sales figures observed in the period between 2007 and 2013 were not stable because those figures coincide with the introduction and adoption of the technology by consumers in 2007 with the release of the Kindle and with rapid advancement of the technology starting in 2010 with the release of several digital bookstores and the iPad. By 2014, innovation in the field of eBooks had slowed down and there were less major product launches to temporarily boost sales figures. Also, consumers had time to get accustomed to the idea of eBooks by 2014 so purchasing behavior from that point on reflects consumer attitudes towards eBooks as a standard commodity rather than a new craze. The eBook industry was introduced and grew so recently and so quickly that there is little precedent for what standard sales figures look like and I argue that it is possible that the sales trends starting in 2014 to today are indicating the stabilization of the market towards standard levels.
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