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Ebooks in 2015: Dull new world

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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.

6 Responses to “Ebooks in 2015: Dull new world”

  1. amywalsh

    Why would anyone want to pay for a service when libraries lend books for free? Many libraries now lend ebooks. I live in West Virginia and every library in the state has a generous eBook collection! It’s so easy to borrow ebooks now!

  2. Isn’t this all completely to be expected? As technology eases both the cost and process of entry for authors to be ‘published’ the direct result should indeed be a ‘glut’.
    You’d have to be silly to look at it and think how great it is that you can now get your book published without having to go through the approval of some publishing house or pay outrageous amounts to self publish, but then also think you are the only person in the world who has realized this.
    Ultimately the hope would be that the same increases in technology would allow for niche groups to find places to gather and interact. To discover and share good authors they’ve found and thus help promote better writers upward from the glut. Separate the wheat from the chaff, as it were.
    I guess ultimately what remains to be seen is if this democratization of published authorship provides more good writing. Or if it simply increases the noise by removing the industry filter which was the approval of those publishing houses.
    My guess is we get more good authors/writing. Because the filter those publishing houses applied was not just what was good, but also what they could sell. And frankly I’m being generous with the term ‘also’ there because we all know that “what they could sell” was really the only criteria for most of them. It being good was never much considered.
    At the same time we should expect the average number of readers for an author as well as the average income to plummet. Both will probably rapidly approach zero. But again, that is completely to be expected when the pool of authors rapidly grows. The fact is that most will earn nothing and not be much read.
    I don’t think this is anything to wring our hands about really. No doubt many wonderful writers will fail to be discovered. But this isn’t really anything new.

    • Stephen T. Harper

      “Because the filter those publishing houses applied was not just what was good, but also what they could sell.”

      Agreed. Might even say that it’s “mostly” about what they can sell. What the independent option offers for authors and readers is a place for the kind quality books that used to be considered “midlist” to find an audience. Genre mysteries, sci-fi and fantasy series, etc. Big publishing has went the way of the movie business – blockbuster mentality – long ago. But fans of genres like cozy mysteries, historical adventure, space opera sci-fi… they haven’t been catered too like they once were. Now, however, they are seeing the kind of stuff they like more and more, because one author taking a larger cut of each sale can do well publishing a series that produces numbers too small for a Big House to be interested in.

      “The fact is that most will earn nothing and not be much read.
      I don’t think this is anything to wring our hands about really. No doubt many wonderful writers will fail to be discovered. But this isn’t really anything new.”

      Agreed again! There is opportunity for all but guarantees for none. The difference now is that the world has an opportunity to pick through the slush pile that once was the exclusive territory of interns trying to please their bosses at agencies and publishing houses. Ultimately, I think it’s becoming a better system. Because while much of the pile won’t be good, there was always tons of great stuff too. Just because publishers love blockbusters and aren’t too keen on genres with small audiences, doesn’t mean that plenty of readers won’t gravitate to them. In fact, they do. More and more.