Jane Friedman, a normally sensible commentator and purveyor of sane advice to self-publishers, seems to have taken this corner a bit too fast and as a result has come off the rails here. The problem is highlighted by her title: “The myth about print coming back and bookstores on the rise”. She seeks to undercut this later by saying “While I’m not at all proclaiming the death of print or traditional publishers, few media outlets have an understanding of the big picture.” So what is it that her media outlet is doing in this discussion of the big picture if it isn’t proclaiming the death of print? Maybe she’d say she’s only reporting that print is very sick, has been hospitalized for months, and may soon be taken off life support. But of course that’s nothing like proclaiming its death! As it happens the patient hasn’t even visited the doctor, apart from its annual physical which as ever seems to turn out fine.
Her “evidence” for the death of print is that “about 12 million coloring books were sold in 2015” — wow, that is overwhelmingly dire news isn’t it? No wonder enquiries about DNR notices are being bandied about. Below I reproduce the Nielsen chart upon which she bases her claim. You’ll notice that the print bar, the blue bit, peaked in 2008 at $778,000,000 and then began a decline as it gave up space to e-books. It declined to $591,000,000 in 2012, since when it has recovered to $653,000,000 in 2015. Need I point out that this is a pretty big number? I’d like to put to Ms Freedman the same question she puts to us: “Once interest [in coloring books] cools off, what do you expect will happen to print sales?” We might (and no doubt did) ask the same question about the Harry Potter books, or Fifty Shades of Grey, or Lord of the Rings, or any of the other fast selling sensations that magically come upon us at regular intervals. Do we have to believe that there’s no author out there putting the finishing touches to next year’s sensation?
She similarly disses the retail book trade. Few would argue with her that Barnes and Noble appear to have problems. “As far as how well independent bookstores are doing, they are a very small percentage of book sales when compared to chain bookstores, big-box stores (the Wal-marts of the world), and of course Amazon.” Amazon is undoubtedly the big fish here, and does as we know sell lots and lots of books be they print or e. Debate continues as to how many bricks-and-mortar stores Amazon is planning to open, but we do know it’s more than the one they already have in Seattle. We have in fact been getting steady news of new independent bookstores opening here and there, but Ms Friedman assures us that we don’t have to bother thinking about them in our analysis, because “For ABA bookstores reporting to Nielsen, their unit sales increase in 2016 has so far been 5%, compared to a 6.4% increase in all US print book sales.” A paltry 5%! Onto the dialysis machine!
For the sake of the potential protester I should point out that Nielsen’s figures doubtless underreport e-book sales. Their figures apparently cover books with ISBNs, and of course lots of self-published books don’t have them. I dare say Ms Friedman is correct and that the drop in e-book sales is related to higher prices. In this context see my earlier post Agency Pricing. However, as I have often been at pains to point out, this isn’t a zero sum game. No matter how high e-book sales really are, we can be pretty sure print sales are $653,000,000 and whether that’s more or less than the “real” e-book number it is nevertheless a very large pile of money.
NOTE: I am embarrassed to admit it, but I think the numbers in the story above are all units sold, not $. It’s hard to get straight, but book publishing sales in America are somewhere north of $20 billion. This doesn’t affect my argument, beyond permitting the cynic to say I must be talking nonsense as I can’t even tell the difference between 1 book and 1 dollar.