How E-Books Have Changed the Print Marketplace: Digital Book World, Day 3

Long Term Change in US Fiction - Nielsen 2014

On the final day of Digital Book World, one of the most tweetable sessions (aside from the Godin talk) was the Nielsen presentation on long-term changes in the print and ebook market by Jonathan Nowell.

Key stats include:

  • Overall U.S. print book sales in 2014: 37% juvenile, 23% adult fiction, and 40% adult nonfiction. If you read the day 1 recap, then you know that 80% of YA purchases are by adult readers, for adult readers. I had a conversation with a librarian, who said part of the appeal for adults is that YA is fast-paced and quick to read—you can finish a book in a day. (Your thoughts? Please comment!)
  • In the latest quarter, adult fiction accounts for 65% of ebook sales.
  • Fiction print book sales: They were up 20% from 2004–2009, and have decreased 37% since then (as a result of ebooks picking up momentum).
  • Fiction ebook sales: Romance started off as the strongest genre in ebook format, and has remained dominant since. Today it constitutes 24% of all ebook sales.
  • Do ebook fiction sales cannibalize print fiction sales? No. From 2008–2010, three mainstay fiction authors sold 27 million print units collectively. From 2010–2012, they sold 23 million print units PLUS 28 million ebook units.
  • Nonfiction print book sales: They were up 18% from 2004–2009, and have decreased 23% since then. The hardest hit categories: travel (-50%) and reference (-37%). The flourishing categories: religion/bibles (+43%), cooking/entertaining (+11%), the latter specifically driven by celebrities.
  • The juvenile category (which includes YA) had its best sales year ever in 2014. Sales are up 12% from the prior year.

The slide pack from Nielsen is full of fascinating data—go take a look.

Seth Godin’s Advice to Publishers

Marketing guru Seth Godin has a background in publishing, and occasionally runs publishing experiments. He was invited to give a brief keynote talk at Digital Book World, followed by a discussion with Michael Cader of Publishers Lunch. Here are some of my favorite points.

  • On the importance of knowing your readership: Godin says one of the fundamental questions is: Who is your customer? “The obvious answer is the reader,” he says, “But if I walk down the street to any publishing house, and ask for people who answer phone calls from readers, or people who track readers” … you won’t find anyone. “But if I ask, ‘Show me the sales force,’ those are people selling to bookstores. Book publishing sells stuff that bookstores want to buy and measures success based on shelf space to be in front of people who pay money. When digital showed up, [the question became] how do we get Amazon, Apple to be our customer? Not: Oh, there’s a different game to be played here.”
  • Until you can answer the question about who your customer is—know who they are and what they want to buy—Godin says, “You’re going to be playing a different game than people who have been winning on the internet for a very long time.”
  • On thinking beyond the book: “If you say what I do for a living is find information and give it to people who need it, that can take a lot of different forms. There’s a huge range of things you could be doing” aside from creating and publishing a book, regardless of its format.
  • On the possible need for even bigger scale publishers to compete against Amazon: “Why did we need general trade publishers? It’s an efficient way to make bookstores happy. Bookstores didn’t want 100,000 publishers but 12. They have time to meet with 12 sales reps. Why is it more efficient to be at that scale?”
  • On Amazon: Godin says the underreported insight about Amazon is that they are culturally and algorithmically very good at selling everything, but they’re not particularly good at selling anything. For publishers, “The challenge is relationships with millions of people—that’s the scale we need, that’s the future of publishing. If readers want to hear from you, you’re going to do fine.”
  • On using digital media to reach readers: “A person telling a person telling a person [about a book] is the holy grail of publishing. The internet allows you amplify that, but only if you know who the reader is.” Godin says that, at this stage of his career, “I don’t grow the audience any more, the audience grows the audience.”
  • On whether authors should be using social media: “The challenge we have is not all of your authors want to be good at social media. And not all of them have something to say when they’re not writing a book. Is the only way to sell books to dance faster than everyone else? I don’t think it is. … What we have to figure out is not merely does this author have 70,000 good words to say in a row, but do they have a following, can we help them get a following, are they the kind of person where a reader says, ‘I can’t wait for your next work.’ The long tail punishes people who are merely interesting to many. It rewards people who there is passion from a few. That’s the sort of thing that when we publish it people embrace it and talk about it.”
  • On ebook subscription services: “Every time people pay money for anything, they’re telling themselves a story. You can’t argue someone into [something]. The challenge isn’t ‘Will this hurt our unit economics?’ But what story do we tell people when they choose to subscribe? … People who will buy because it’s cheaper aren’t going to buy. The story will make it work. The ability to say this is special, not cheap, is a reason why people will cross the street to do it.”
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Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.

In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, How to Publish Your Book. Her book for creative writers, The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), received a starred review from Library Journal.

Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.

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Kathryn Goldman

On adults reading YA, I do and I enjoy it.

I can trace it back to Holes by Louis Sachar when my kids read it in school, then Harry Potter came out and I read it with them. My kids grew up and I read Hunger Games and John Green.

There are many rich and wonderful YA stories like Counting Backwards by Laura Lascarso and Bronx Masquerade by Nikki Grimes.

There’s just no reason not to read YA.


As someone who is old enough to have grandkids reading YA, I enjoy it because of story, particularly contemporary fantasy, and it’s a good escape from the onslaught of sex, sex, and more sex that adult books have substituted for character and plot. I find character and plot considerably more entertaining than pages and pages of sex.

I also listen to YA audiobooks which are just perfect for my daily walks. Give me a Rick Riordan novel, and I can happily walk miles.

Heidi P.

Very helpful! And yes, I love reading YA fiction!

When it comes to story, there’s a huge gulf between powerfully crafted subtlety (where “less is more”)—creating deep story—and the cheap bombardment of explicit description after explicit description after explicit description. Of course, needless to say, powerful subtlety takes a lot of hard work, time and practice…. 🙂

Heidi P.

Oh, no! Any genre can fall prey to cardboard characters, stilted plots, etc. I was speaking of story in general. And the “explicit description” point was more about good writing in all genres. Romance is definitely a good example, though. In a romance, there’s a cognitive difference between an explicit description (causing a certain kind of instant, emotional response/gratification in the reader) and a subtle one–perhaps involving more metaphor, previous foreshadowing, reticence and so on–causing the reader to interactively enter into the creative process themselves.

[…] on January 16, 2015 by Jane […]

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M.J. Rose

I don’t believe the cannibalization number at all – one cannot judge an entire question on the three bestelling authors especially . All studies show that branded bestsellers are the last category to have changes in the market place affect them. At least 40% of all fiction readers no longer purchase books that cost more that $5 -and the only time they make an exception is when their favorite bestelling author has a new book out.

[…] The author might maintain foreign and film rights for each book, but rarely keeps eBook rights. This is where publishers are making the majority of their profits these days – eBooks are the future. Don’t worry, print sales are still just fine. Here’s an interesting post by former Writer’s Digest editor, Jane Friedman: How eBooks Have Changed the Print Marketplace. […]

[…] the first post of two on the subject of changes in publishing. I came across an interesting post by Jane Friedman on the subject, based on a Nielsen presentation by Jonathan Nowell. Studying the last decade, one […]

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