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Why Isn’t Print Dead?

According to Yoda, the future is always in motion. That may be why it’s so hard for forecasters to read the tea leaves. For years they foretold the demise of print publishing as digital readers took the world by storm. But over the past couple of years, the digital growth curve has flattened and even turned downward. By 2013, eBook sales had grown to 21% of all book sales. But in 2014 that figure dropped to 19%, and in 2015 it further slid to 17%.

What’s going on here? Has the digital dream faltered? Everyone seems to have a theory. Wade through the mass of commentary published over the past year and you’ll find conflicting guesswork. On June 17 of this year, Publisher’s Weekly reported on a Codex Group study that suggests people are succumbing to “digital fatigue,” that many are growing tired of spending so much time plugged into their electronics. This exhaustion appears to be particularly acute among the very group you’d think would have most tightly embraced the gizmos–young adults. According to the study, the decline in e-reading is linked to a decline in e-reader sales and use.

But is the reading public really driving the decline? A Fortune article suggests something different: the ongoing war between Amazon and traditional publishers. On July 11, a mere month after the PW article, they reported that e-book best sellers now cost 50% more than during the Kindle’s early days. It’s not digital fatigue; according to this article, young adults are reading more and are very much in love with the electronic format. Additionally, the rise of self-publishing might be offsetting the decline in e-sales reported by major publishers.

Behind the apparent drop in eBook popularity is a big-picture issue: trade book sales slid 13.7% from January 2015 to January 2016, with the only growth seen in religious publishing. Against this backdrop, is it possible the digital decline is merely an artifact of publishing’s overall woes? Nobody seems to be suggesting that, but it’s hard to avoid wondering whether eBooks sales really are falling off a cliff after all.

In fact, the issue is probably more complex than any of these rather simplistic guesses. What people buy and use and like involves a wide variety of factors from life experiences to the state of the economy. If you’re struggling to keep the roof over your head, you’re not going to blow much on either print books or e-readers. Our experience of reading must play into it, too. My wife is fond of saying that it took humans thousands of years to replace the scroll with something easier to use–the printed book–and now we’ve reinvented the scroll. Her observation is partially borne out by a 2013 Scientific American report on research that compares reading using physical books and eBooks. The results suggest that each technology has merits, but that there can be potential drawbacks to e-reading.

Regardless of the reasons, clearly print books aren’t going away tomorrow, but neither are eBooks. Seventeen percent of sales is nothing to sneeze at. We publishers would be well-advised to make our products available in both formats, reasonably priced. I don’t mean that all eBooks should be as cheap as Amazon wants to make them. Writing, editing, layout, artwork, and file conversion costs money. Nevertheless, $15.00 is probably too much for most eBooks. People may indeed be less interested in buying them for that reason alone. Does that mean they’re running out to buy the print edition instead? Not necessarily. Remember that 13.7% decline in trade sales?

Earlier in 2016, we settled on three price points for our One Voice Press and Serpent Cliff eBooks: $3.99 for children’s titles and shorter works, $4.99 for most adult fiction and nonfiction, and $5.99 for longer works. This represented a decline in price for most of our titles, but so far I can’t say we’ve noticed any significant change in sales. Then again, we didn’t sell many eBooks to start with. The vast majority of our readers still buy print books. And that, too, may say something.

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