Remember print books, those antiquated relics of a bygone age that pundits and prognosticators had forsaken and buried a long time ago? Apparently, they're back in vogue and not going away anytime soon, which should make digital publishers and authors sit up and take notice.
"The Evolution of the Book Industry: Implications for U.S. Book Manufacturers and Printers," a study of about 800 respondents, found that nearly 70% of consumers feel it is unlikely that they will abandon print books by 2016, as they have an emotional and visceral/sensory attachment to print books and possibly consider them a luxury item. Additionally, 60% of downloaded ebooks are never read in the U.S., despite their perceived popularity. Lack of eye strain when reading from paper versus digital, the feel and look of paper, and the ability to add a print book to a bookshelf or library are cited as the top three reasons why consumers opt for printed books.
As further evidence that digital tomes aren't about to torch their paper brethren into extinction, another survey from Voxburner revealed that, among 1,400 16- to 24-year-olds in the U.K., approximately 62% say they prefer print books over ebooks.
While sales of ebooks remain relatively impressive, consider that they were flat or on the decline for much of 2013; AAP (Association of American Publishers) recently reported that ebook sales were approximately $128 million last August, down 3% from a year earlier.
Should ebook publishers and authors be alarmed by the latest data? That depends on whom you ask.
"I was surprised by these findings, because I was sure that ebook sales had been growing at an exponential rate," says Kenneth Eade, a self-published author of several books that sell three times better in digital format versus print format on Amazon. "However, we have observed many bookstore closings and consolidations in the past few years, and I think we will continue to see more. Although paper title sales are higher, you cannot ignore ebooks, which I still think are the future of publishing."
Michael Paul Gonzalez, editor and author at Thunderdome Press, says he's neither encouraged nor alarmed by the aforementioned statistics.
"We're dealing with a new kind of technology that's a new paradigm in publishing. People are still adapting to the technology, but everyone's trying to read the tea leaves so they can continue to make money as quickly as possible," says Gonzalez. "Every month there's a new ‘sky is falling' industry report coupled with an ‘everything is fine' report. There will always be a place for the printed word, and both formats can and will coexist peacefully."
Ask Jennifer Rotner, owner of Elite Editing, and she'll tell you that it's important to take poll results and study findings with a grain of salt. "Market research is essential to staying buoyant in the changing marketplace. It's important to know how consumers are making decisions as well as how they are buying. But it's also necessary not to put too much stock into one survey. The industry is in transition right now, so it's important to see the forest through the trees-or the trends through the data," says Rotner.
David Wilk, publisher of Frederator Books, points out that these newest statistics don't necessarily indicate a failure on the part of ebook publishers to promote their digital offerings. The fault could lie more with ebook readers and creation software. "These issues are not really for publishers alone to solve or resolve. Ebook software, especially ebook design, continues to lag behind physical device development," says Wilk. "There is no question that ebooks will gain more readers once the ebook experience is made better for readers and the tools for ebook creation are made more expressive and powerful for publishers and creators themselves."
Whether the most recent numbers provoke skepticism or bring out your inner Chicken Little, experts say it's important for ebook creators to boost enthusiasm for digital content among consumers, but without necessarily robbing Peter (potential print format sales) to pay Paul (ebook format).
"Publishers can offer more discounts on ebooks," says Eade. "For example, over a period of 1 week, you can deeply discount your ebook and increase the discount price in stages until it reverts to the regular price."
Lowering cost is often the default strategy, "but a far better one is to increase the quality of the ebook over the print equivalent," says Derek Padula, author. "Include audio, video, and other enhanced features that cannot be included in print. Or add color to an otherwise black-and-white print text."
Wilk agrees that your greatest ebook selling point is the quality of the content itself. "Great content will always be the primary driver. If we present great content in a compelling and attractive way, we will attract readers," says Wilk.
Giveaway promotions and other creative strategies can also stimulate interest in digital titles. "What I offer is to send a free print book with the purchase of an ebook and ask for a promise of a review on the site the ebook was purchased on. I also sometimes have a charitable tie to the proceeds of the book," Christine F. Anderson, author and owner of Christine F. Anderson Publishing and Media, says. "And without a doubt you have to be active in social media-you have to post, tweet, and pin in earnest of your topic of writing."
Fletcher Rhoden, author and VP of Blujesto Press, says print and digital formats of a given book should never work against each other. Nevertheless, be prepared for sales to seesaw between the two.
"When a publisher has a title in both formats, that's more variety for the consumer," says Rhoden, who recommends a barrage of social media marketing to promote either format. "The paperback market is clearly hanging on. In December, our paperback sales surpassed our ebook sales, because paperbacks make good gifts, but Kindle books don't. A loss in one column may seem like a hit, but you enjoy the gain in the other column, so news in favor of one format or the other isn't as alarming for us as it might be for paperback-only publishers or magazine or tabloid publishers who haven't made the leap to digital yet."