Ebooks in 2015: Dull new world

Ebooks are feeling a bit hungover heading into the new year. The 50 Shades of Grey exuberance of 2011 and 2012 feels long ago. The first seemingly viable ebook subscription services launched at the end of 2013 (Scribd, Oyster) and Amazon launched its own ebook subscription service, Kindle Unlimited, mid-2014.

The main difference between Kindle Unlimited and Scribd and Oyster — all of which cost around $10 a month — is that Kindle Unlimited has way fewer books that people have heard of. That’s because Scribd and Oyster have been able to attract big-5 publishers (HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, likely soon Macmillan) that hope to shake Amazon’s dominance in the ebook market, so they see no reason to make their books available on Kindle Unlimited.

Kindle Unlimited (KU), meanwhile, is attracting a bunch of negative press coverage as indie authors become disillusioned by it. The general bad feeling has been floating around on the internet, particularly on the Kindle user forum KBoards.com, since Kindle Unlimited’s launch but hit the front page of the New York Times last Sunday.

“If you’re not an author with a slavish fan following, you’re in a lot of trouble,” self-published author Bob Mayer told the NYT’s David Streitfeld. “Everyone already has a ton of things on their Kindle they haven’t opened.

“What is now being proven is that market is not infinitely elastic,” publishing industry consultant Mike Shatzkin wrote on his blog on New Year’s Eve. “It seems likely that the low-priced indie authors are disproportionately affected by KU. Who bought indie author ebooks in the first place? The price-sensitive reader! Who switches from buying individual ebooks to the subscription service first? The price-sensitive reader! In other words, the subscription service offering appeals most to the same audience as those who read indie-published ebooks.”

Meanwhile, Nate Hoffelder at The Digital Reader wondered whether ebook subscription services are only a problem for indie authors or whether they will be a problem for traditional publishers as well. Of course, one of the main reasons that publishers feared ebook subscriptions in the first place was that they worried such services would cannibalize individual paid sales (the Spotify problem, in other words). But most of the disgruntlement over ebook subscriptions is focused on Kindle Unlimited and is coming from indie authors right now.

In the meantime, take a look at this chart in a year-end post by Mark Coker, the CEO of self-publishing site Smashwords:

smashwords growth 2008-2014

Smashwords lets its authors distribute their books to Scribd and Oyster. Coker mentions Kindle Unlimited, too:

“Our broad distribution network helped authors and publishers diversify their exposure to an industry-wide slowdown in ebook retailing…Authors who fully distributed their titles with Smashwords were partially insulated from the dramatic sales drops many Amazon authors reported following the introduction of Kindle Unlimited.”

Coker obviously doesn’t mention the word “glut,” though it certainly could be a caption for the chart above. In 2015 we’ll have to see whether “glut” largely continues to be seen as a Kindle Unlimited problem. But if more people aren’t buying and reading more books, it will be a problem for most authors and for all ebook subscription services.