Do Ebook Sales Hurt Paper Book Sales or is it all Instant Gratification?

The main problem with writing about specific ebook vs books sales issues as a self publisher is that my access to in-depth data is limited to my own titles. In this instance, I only have year over year comparisons available for two titles, taking the August 1st to October 27th time frame. Further complicating the comparison is the worldwide economic downturn that I'm estimating has shaved at least 25% off my sales in October.

Even for ebooks as low as $9.95 with the customer benefit of instant gratification, people are holding onto their credit cards a lot tighter than just a month ago. Since a high proportion of my sales are generated directly through my website, whether ebooks, direct sales or Amazon Associates sales, I get a sort of instant feedback on book market conditions that publishers who rely heavily on bookstores may not see, unless they are getting real-time sell through data. My website traffic levels are pretty much where I'd expect, visitors just aren't becoming buyers at the usual rate.

The two titles I have year over year data for are my POD publishing book and my computer business title. For shorthand, I'll refer to them as POD and CB. In the last 90 days, I sold 35 ebook versions of POD (15 outside of the US) and 31 paper copies through Amazon Associates. During the same period last year when there was no ebook version for sale, I sold 53 copies through Amazon Associates. In the same time period, I sold 62 ebook versions of CB (13 outside the US) and 23 paper copies through Amazon Associates, while in the previous year I sold 52 copies through Amazon Associates.

So the quick math would imply that I lost 51 paper book sales, but gained 97 ebook sales, where the ebook sales are a little more profitable. If we eliminate the overseas sales for these two titles since those buyers wouldn't be a good match for the US Amazon Associates referrals (28 copies), I'm still generating more sales through offering ebook versions. While the overall numbers are small, the percentage differences are very large.

The caveats even on this limited data set are many, including the fact that the paper version of POD was updated this year while the paper version of CB was not, making CB with its 2002 copyright date a harder sale on Amazon with every passing year. But the bigger caveat which stands repeating is that October sales have been depressed by the global economy. Even Saudi Arabia (where I got a second sale this morning) has seen their stock market fall 50%.

Another consideration is whether steering some sales away from Amazon is hurting the visibility of my titles there. It doesn't matter in the case of CB which is the #1 title in a tiny and ever-shrinking market, but in the case of POD it's possible that I'm losing a little traction. It's very hard to say because the top book in that segment, Aaron Shepard's "Aiming at Amazon" has been unavailable for several months while he revises the text. But as long as the visibility damage is limited, it's more than offset in my mind by the diversification offered by ebooks. And as testified by a US based customer of POD in an e-mail this weekend, he bought the ebook for instant gratification. Even Amazon Prime shipping can't compete with ebooks.

To put a country with a concept, I'm going to conclude by pasting in the list of countries where people have purchased at least one e-book, which is now 40 strong. The numbers in the parenthesis () are the totals for those countries:

Australia (21)
Austria (2)
Belgium (4)
Brazil (2)
Canada (20)
Costa Rica
Denmark (2)
France (2)
Great Britain (48)
Ireland (9)
Italy (5)
Mexico (2)
Malaysia (2)
Netherlands (4)
New Zealand (2)
Papua New Guinea
Saudi Arabia (2)
Spain (3)
Sri Lanka
Thailand (2)
Trinidad and Tobago

400th Executive Staff And Strategic Editorial Board Meeting

Blogger informs me that this is the 400th post to the self publishing blog. There's something scary about that, especially since the law of diminishing search engine returns took over around 350 posts ago, but I suppose it's not as frightening as being a long-time newspaper columnist or cartoonist. My first reaction to the impending anniversary was to produce a little lecture about the dangers of falling into a rut in your publishing business and writing life:

But on further reflection, especially thinking about some of my earlier posts making fun of big trade publishers and their staff meetings , it occurred to me that this blog has become the Foner Books executive staff and editorial board meeting all rolled up in one. While most self publishers don't think of themselves as publishing executives, it's a fair description if your publishing business is a going concern, and those of us functioning as sole proprietors pay an appreciably higher tax rate than the corporate trade publishing executives. So, from the nuts-and-bolts of my publishing business to blue sky projects for the future, this blog replaces the strategic staff meetings with coffee and donuts I'd be holding if I had an office in Manhattan.

It's a funny thing, waking up one morning and finding out that you've become a publishing executive holding weekly staff meetings. And it's even funnier if you consider all of the unpaid executive interns who have participated in stress testing the Foner Books publishing strategies by way of comments to the blog. I do appreciate it, and I'd buy you all a coffee if you were here (but I'm not letting go of my key to the executive washroom). Since I finally got around to enabling a feed a while ago, the meeting has picked up a hundred or so subscribers who may very well be reading along over their fourth mid-late morning or coffee break.

Unlike my memory of business meetings back in my youth when I worked for the man, this forum does keep me interested, probably because I get to do most of the talking and have the last word. I intend to bring in more guest speakers, by way of interviews, and write more about Internet centric publishing strategies and business development. And I'll keep hammering away at the basic truth of Internet age publishing, that information and ideas trump production values and packaging for all but the fattest wallets.

Amazon Becomes America's Largest Book Buyer

The book selling wars that began four decades ago with the rise of the mall chains, followed by the growing power of the Barnes & Noble, Borders and BAM superstore chains, has been won by Amazon. Amazon sales are on track for double-digit gains again this year, aided in part by high fuel prices discouraging trips to the regional superstores that have replaced so many local bookstores. Amazon's North American growth in media sales (books, music and movies) may exceed the incredible 23% gain they turned in last year. Amazon is on pace to sell more books in the US than the entire Barnes & Noble chain in 2008, even allowing for a higher music and video mix. If you add Amazon's international stores to the mix, they will easily sell more books than Barnes & Nobles plus Borders this year.

On the bright side, large trade publishers may find that having Amazon as their #1 customer will free them from having to cater to the tastes of powerful chain buyers. In past years, buyers at the large chains had significant input in everything from the title mix at some large publishers to the physical format and design of new books. These chain buyers and a handful of review publications formed a cabal of gatekeepers in the American publishing industry, and while some may lament their waning power, I was never impressed by their choices. The exclusivity that they fostered contained the seeds of their own downfall. Amazon, to date, has offered the closest thing to a level playing field for booksellers that's existed in the publishing world since the beginning of time.

On the dark side, there's Amazon's attempt to force a new printing paradigm on the publishing industry. Strangely enough, they're in a better position to dictate surrender terms to the large trade publishers than to self publishers like myself. If Amazon changes the rules such that I no longer want too play their game, I may lose over half my sales and a third of my after tax earnings, but I'll still make a living thanks to diversification. Large trade publishers are only seeing their dependence on Amazon grow. If Barnes & Noble announced plans tomorrow to install print-on-demand machines to print ALL of the books they sell at each store location to save on fuel, what large publisher could afford to say no? Well, replace Barnes & Noble in the previous sentence with Amazon and replace "save on fuel" with "better serve our customers" and the economic decision remains the same. If Amazon actually builds the capacity to print all of the books they sell, the large trade publisher will be faced with an existential question. If the choice is to sign on or have the Amazon playing field tilt against their titles, they'll be forced to sign. Amazon is their buyer who is too big to fail.

And why am I revisiting this topic today? Since Amazon announced that they are are rolling out in-house print-on-demand services in the UK last week, several publishers with books printed in the UK by Lightning Source have seen them go "temporarily out of stock" in the international Amazon stores. Considering that the lead line of Amazon's press release begins "POD titles are effectively always in-stock" it appears that Amazon may be trying to draw a branding distinction. If it's not Amazon POD, it's not POD. Strangely enough, the Amazon relationship with Lightning Source in the UK had worked like a charm for the previous six years, maybe somebody changed their mailing address.

I can't predict exactly how far into the future the day of reckoning will arrive for large publishers, but it's clear that Amazon can control the timetable with the pace of their investment in POD and Kindle. Speaking strictly as a reader, I would prefer a world where Amazon dictates the physical form of books to one where a small number of chain buyers and opinion makers dictates the content and artwork. Speaking as a self publisher, I'd prefer to have the small publishing world continue just as it is today, with Lightning Source providing a single source solution for zero inventory publishing that encompasses both regular bookstores and Amazon at home and overseas.

But the bottom line is that the future of the publishing industry can no longer be extrapolated from past performance. The business of printing and warehousing large numbers of books, distribution through wholesalers and distributors, cozy relationships between buyers and publisher reps, is on the decline. The Internet is the infrastructure on which the publishing world of the future will depend, not the offset printer. And eventually, the transition from a "print and warehouse" business to a "data warehousing and print" business will do more to hasten the rise of ebooks than all the pretty devices in the world.

Don't Play Business - Hunker Down And Write A Book

I don't remember ever quoting one of my own blog posts before, but as dusk and the time for reflecting on the year approaches with the Yom Kippur fast, I want to repeat a couple thoughts from the previous Kol Nidre:

There really aren't two popular camps when it comes to building a career in self publishing. Pretty much everybody hangs out in the break-through camp, where they talk about pushing the ball to the top of the hill and then letting it roll down, gathering momentum and sales. It's all about the big push, mortgaging the house and quitting your day job. It's about radio and TV, publicity firms and viral marketing. It's about telling millions of people about your book and getting them into a buying frenzy, and who cares if they read it.

I hate that approach to publishing for more reasons than I can list, but the #1 reason is because I have to hear about it from correspondents making one of the dumbest mistakes of their lives. When an author pushes a book over the top of the hill through deft use of their money and personality, any success they achieve isn't about the book, it's about the author. They can't tell you how to duplicate their path. Becoming somebody else is not a practical business plan you can follow, especially since there's a big helping of luck involved in becoming a minor celebrity. Even worse, the momentum for most titles is illusory. When the pushing stops the sales stop.

And in January I wrote about the approaching economic downturn and how publishers could act to recession proof their businesses:

But perhaps the main point I'd like to remind myself and my publishing friends of is to beware that knowledge has a time value. What we all "know" about publishing in the mid 1990's through mid 2000's time frame may no longer hold true going forward. I've been involved in small businesses as long as I've been working, almost 30 years now, and I've seen many a small business fail by sticking with their business plan despite changes in the market. The final nail in the coffin is often a desperate attempt to prop up the old business model with advertising. Don't panic because your publishing business stops growing, or even sees declining sales. Try to see your complete economic picture, and ask yourself if you're better off than you were five or ten years ago. If you keep producing quality titles and weather the down-turn, at some point in the future, you'll see windfall profits when the economy picks up. Unless, that is, you've shifted your entire title list to books about the end of capitalism:-)

My January prediction stagflation may prove to be correct, or we may be in for a sharper economic contraction, but in either case, don't expect the publishing business to escape unscathed. I've heard from a few of my regular publishing correspondents about their plans or worries for the waning of the business cycle, and I want to reiterate my basic small business advice. Don't spend money in the hope that it may come back to you multiplied several times over. That's called speculation, and it's a lot easier and far less time consuming to speculate on stocks than on book publishing. Hunker down, cancel your trip to the London or Frankfurt book fair, and write a new book. Writing a book won't cost you anything but your time, and if it keeps you at home rather than going out shopping or partying, it will help your economic position even if it never gets published.

Focus on your core business objectives. I heard from a publisher in Taiwan a couple weeks ago who was interested in buying the Chinese rights to my latest book. I sold the Chinese rights for an earlier title of mine last year, it was far more trouble than it was worth. So I took a pass, even though a rights sale means cash in the pocket. I don't have the energy of a 20 year old to work on my business 20 hours a day, so I'm not interested in chasing every opportunity to make a buck and getting distracted from my bread and butter business model.

While statistics don't mean much over small data sets, I've seen a clear drop off in my business over the past two weeks, as the newspaper headlines turned from merely depressing to bleak. When Americans actually cut back on credit card spending, it means that the economy is contracting. Some book retailers, particularly Amazon, may see continued if moderate growth thanks to the high price of gasoline making their free shipping more attractive than ever, and the ongoing closure of brick-and-mortar bookstores. But Amazon, in the end, is a credit card business, so their immunity may be illusory.

Since I wrote about knowledge having time value and staying open to new paradigms in publishing, I've pushed back into e-book publishing with results that surpassed my expectations. E-books have accounted for around 20% of my publishing revenue since summer, and have helped my business model regain some of the independence from Amazon that I lost when Barnes&Noble stopped stocking my most popular title. I've also cut down my Self Publishing Blog posting frequency to around once a week, as it's not central to my business model.

In any case, moderation does it. My own approach to fasting is to eat a cheese sandwich and drink a glass of water beforehand, which makes the fast so easy that I almost feel like I'm cheating. But for those readers who prefer the traditional stuff and starve approach, I'll leave you with a little eye candy:-)

Insight Into Self Publishing on YouTube

I've been posting my little video lectures about self publishing on YouTube for nearly a year now. YouTube does offer some publicly viewable information about the source(s) of the video views under the Statistics&Data tab, but it's limited compared to the data available to the channel owners when logged into their accounts. For example, the quick stats for my fonerbooks channel (accessed by clicking "account" at the top and not choosing any drop down items) shows:

Videos Uploaded: 22
Video Views: 26,955
Channel Views: 2,161
Subscribers: 35

Or in longhand, that my 22 videos have been watched a total of 26,955 times, that 2,161 individuals have clicked on my channel to check other videos, and that 35 people have signed up to be notified whenever I post a new one. But when I logged into YouTube yesterday, I saw a new option on the "account > My Videos" page called "YouTube Insight." Below is a screenshot of the main Insight data for my publishing channel for the past year:

The main takeaways are that my video are currently averaging a little over 80 views a day, that just over a third of the viewers are female, and that the vast bulk of viewers are in their productive professional years.

Next I'm going to show the YouTube Insight data for my new website, for which I promised to publish progress updates on this blog. The sad truth is it has already gone off-mission, as my plan for a general repair site has bogged down into endless work on the project car which was originally intended to give the site a narrative thread. The mechanical work I wanted to start with has all been pushed off until I finish repairing the unibody and installing new floors. But the new site does offer an interesting insight of its own into self publishing videos on YouTube.

In the past week, all of the viewers (as measured by YouTube) were between 18 and 44, with half as many female viewers as my publishing channel. In addition, the overall number of video views per day isn't that far below my publishing channel total, despite the fact that this website generates large numbers of publishing video viewers, while the website generates relative few viewers for the car repair videos. All of which tends to support the generally held view of YouTube, that its main audience is younger people, and that it's not generally seen as a source of specific professional information. Many of the little repair videos pick up a number of viewers on YouTube who are planning a repair themselves and are looking for How-To instructions. But relatively few people, especially in the demographic who watch my publishing series of videos, would go to YouTube and search for various publishing related phrases in hope of finding a video to watch. The publishing videos probably pick up a few viewers directly from search when they show up in Google results.

I'm a little disappointed that the little live action repair videos I knock out while working on the car attract nearly as many viewers as the publishing videos which I put a real effort into, including multiple takes and talking to myself. But it's important accept the various Internet publishing options for what they are, and not waste too much time trying to force the wrong content into a publishing platform just because it's available or popular. I also gained a little insight into my failure to find a wife and settle. Analyzed objectively, the problem must be that I'm sending out the wrong publishing signals for finding a nice Jewish woman within walking distance:-)

My other excuse for embedding this re-run video is to point out that it is embedded with the "Don't include related videos" option. So when the video finishes playing, YouTube doesn't display a bunch of related videos. I do this whenever I remember in order to combat video hijacking. I don't want a bunch of random videos from unknown pitchmen showing up on my web pages, especially when many YouTube videos are designed for that specific purpose.