Does it make sense to publish digital only?
Various traditional publishers and self-publishing venues offer digital-only options to authors, but does it make sense to go that route?
Obviously the answer will differ for each writer’s particular circumstances, but as I read the most recent issue of Publishers Weekly, two articles on recent statistics jumped out at me that could help in making that decision:
1) Half of all novels purchased–both online and at retail stores–are physical books. Publishers Weekly looked at Nielsen Bookscan numbers for the twenty top-selling books of the year to reach this conclusion.
Two things to keep in mind about this statistic and the others based on the Bookscan report: Bookscan numbers are notoriously inaccurate when it comes to measuring how many books are sold through Christian bookstores because many of those bookstores don’t report their sales numbers. That situation has improved in recent years, but it’s not resolved. Second, Publishers Weekly looked at books that are best-selling. The authors aren’t struggling with discoverability, with writers including such luminaries as Dan Brown and Nicholas Sparks on the list.
Still, the findings give us an idea of what format books are being bought in. We already know that novels–and nonfiction that is driven through narrative, such as memoirs–are the most downloaded types of books. Some prognosticators would have expected digital to be stronger in the fiction category. As I look at the sales for our clients, I find that backlist fiction can be dominated by digital sales, but frontlist generally is coming in at more of a 40% digital, 60% physical range.
In other categories, the Bookscan numbers give different insights.
2) Younger readers are slow e-book adaptors. Two titles by Dr. Seuss were available only via apps and not digitally so had zero digital sales. The Third Wheel, the seventh Wimpy Kid book, sold 20% digitally. That trend is borne out in my clients’ experiences for books all the way up through teens. Kids are reading via print books.
3) Even best-selling nonfiction books aren’t good draws for digital reads. Despite the Duck Commander books’ popularity, and Proof of Heaven’s narrative style, digital sales were in the 20-25% range in the Bookscan report, with the vast majority of sales being physical books. I find it interested to note that the Bookscan nonfiction numbers match the numbers for the Wimpy Kid title. I would say, among our clients, digital sales on nonfiction books are about 15%.
None of this information shatters what we’ve been reading about digital vs. print sales. But I think it does help to inform authors about the best format to garner sales for what they’re writing. And if a digital-only offer is available to you, having these figures in mind can be helpful.
Another study that Publishers Weekly reported on fills in more of the picture.
4) The price at which physical books are sold has held steady for the past four years, whereas the price of digital books has fallen from an average of $10.19 to $5.65. (Stats are from the latest Bowker study.) The difference in pricing shifts is startling to me. I don’t know how digital free downloads were figured into the study, or if only those books that were actually sold were calculated. I would assume only those sold were considered.
Two conclusions occur to me:
- If a publisher and/or author can drive sales to physical books just as effectively as to digital books, more money will be made selling physical books.
- A digital title must sell twice as many copies as physical copies to result in the same amount of money. And, as the Bookscan numbers show, most digital titles are not performing at that level.
The Bookscan numbers and the Bowker study, taken together, indicate that the rumors of the death of the physical book are greatly exaggerated.
What insights occur to you from these two reports?
How does this information affect the way you think about book sales?
Do your buying habits match up with what the studies show?
How close are physical books to extinction? Click to tweet.
How to make the most money–selling books in digital format or physical? Click to tweet.