Trends in Digital Publishing — Ebooks are Changing Publishing

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Once, books were painstakingly copied by hand, then, in 1450 Gutenberg invented the printing press and revolutionized the publishing industry. Those first books were superbly crafted hardcovers, so it’s no wonder when dime store paperbacks appeared in the 1800s and 1900s that they were considered the trashy cousins of “real” books.

History, we know, tends to repeat itself, so it’s no surprise that ebooks had a similar reception when digital books began to appear on the scene. When was that exactly? Well, in the U.S. (statistics aren’t readily available for the Canadian marketplace) ebooks had a 0.05% share in 2002.

Fast forward ahead a decade, to 2012, and add in the Kindle, the Nook, and the Kobo e-reading devices, plus of course, the iPad, and those numbers shoot way up to 20%! According to the percentage calculator that’s a phenomenal increase of 39900%.

And while any trend showing that kind of growth is destined to slow, from 2012 to 2013 the U.S. e-book industry grew another 55% (statistics all from the American Booksellers Association) to 31% of overall book sales based on ISBNs issued by Bowkers. Sounds pretty amazing, right? However, that percentage is still incredibly under-reported because none of the hundreds of thousands of independently published ebooks sold on Amazon with an Amazon ASBN are included in the count.

Okay, suffice it to say that ebooks are here to stay and they’re doing well.

The other very interesting trend, particularly for authors, is that independently or “indie” published books have come full circle, from being scoffed at as vanity publishing to being the majority of what readers buy in some genres.

Surprised? Below you’ll find a graph created by Hugh Howey, based on his painstakingly collected data from Amazon best seller lists, showing this changing trend in book buying.

Author Earnings by Genre
Author Earnings by Genre

Credit: Chart created and shared by a Creative Commons License from:

Romance, as most of us know, is one of the top-selling genres, taking, according to Nielsons, 13% of all adult fiction sales in 2013. What’s new, which you can see from the chart based on Amazon bestsellers, is that indie authors captured 66% of all the romance novels sold, compared to just 18% from the Big Five in the U.S. (for more details on calculations see the site).

The big five, who publish many of the big names in the mystery/thriller/suspense genres, such as Stephen King and Dan Brown, pulled ahead of indie authors. That was, of course, to be expected, as if there’s one trend that’s as true in digital publishing as in traditional publishing, it’s that readers are loyal.

Nonfiction didn’t present a lot of spread between the Big Five and indie authors, with percentages of 35% and 26%. It stands to reason, though, that readers may rely on traditional publishers to ensure the accuracy of factual information before committing their dollars to a sale.

Science fiction and fantasy (often lumped together as speculative fiction) novels, like romance, are dominated by the independents. For each Big Five sale, indie authors make around two sales, which give e-book self-publishers a nice edge in this genre.

But while numbers are always interesting in establishing trends, it’s often what’s behind the numbers that tells the whole story. Here, the trend to romance and speculative fiction crossing a number of genres in the same book, such as paranormal romance, has given fans something new to savor in their ebook reading.

There are, as you might expect, some trends appearing in who’s making the sales too. As always, a professionally edited, well-designed book will pull ahead of the competition just as the chaff blows away leaving the wheat’s gold nuggets behind at harvest.

The truth is that hybrid authors, or authors with both traditionally published books and self-published ebooks, are pulling ahead in income. Why? Well, that’s hard to pin down as the reasons may vary from author to author. Some include: Experience in self-marketing, support already received through the “establishment,” the ability to recognize what they need to get help with, like editing, and what they can do themselves, such as the format conversions. Or, it could just plain be that hybrid authors are typically more business minded, or they’d have stuck to sending their books off to their traditional publishers.

Additional trends that have emerged from studying indie fiction authors making a living include:

  • Releasing at least three related books (same series or genre) in a short time span (several months)
  • Using free giveaways of prequels, the first book of a series, or short stories with the same characters
  • Developing a strong online writer’s platform or brand with such things as social media and blogging
  • Prolific authors earn more, although the law of diminishing returns applies (after 60 books it’s not going to make a lot of difference)
  • The $2.99 to $4.99 price point works best for most authors (if they also use free giveaways)

While statistics show that genre fiction is the big winner in indie ebook trends, there’s also a place for literary fiction. Darcie’s Chan’s literary debut novel, The Mill River Recluse, stayed on the New York Times bestseller ebook list for 28 weeks (topping at #2) USA Today ebook bestseller list for 30 weeks.

This article was first published in Freelance, a publication of the Saskatchewan Writers’ Guild.

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