In response to Ebook Sales Declining Report from AAP: It’s all good

In response to Declining Ebook SalesSo we learned yesterday, directly from the Association of American Publishers, that publishers’ overall revenue from ebook sales are declining. Some takeaways, as reported by Digital Book World: Ebook sales declined in 2015; digital audio continued to grow in popularity; trade publishers did better than educational and scholarly publishers; adult books performed better than other trade categories. Always more interested in the “how” rather than the “how much,” I’ll let others report on the numbers and figures, while I reflect on the possible/likely reasons why these trends are prevalent, what they teach us about our relationship with ebooks, and why it actually all makes sense (and cents).

  • eBook sales declined this year – mostly from the Children’s & Young Adult category (C/YA down 43.3% from 2014). — Many children’s book publishers (particularly those focused on children’s educational content) are still in the process of converting their outdated PDFs into epubs. Many such publishers only make their newer titles available for distribution in epub format (the process of converting PDFs into epubs is far more expensive than most people realize). Likewise, children’s books are often illustrated books, laden with images and illustrations that make them less enjoyable to “experience” on screen. This isn’t an obstacle that can’t be overcome, but publishers need to invest more time and energy into making such books more “presentable” to young readers (same goes for art books). Will they be more inclined to read digital books if the “experience” itself was less cumbersome and more intuitive? I’m placing my bet that they will.
  •  Downloaded audio continues to grow in popularity – this growth is most evident in the Adult Books category (Adult up 38.9% from 2014). Not surprising. But what are audio books if not simply types of digital books (i.e., ebooks)? And don’t many ebooks (not classified as “audiobooks” per se) nowadays come with an “audio” component anyway (OUP’s titles come to mind), making it harder to distinguish them from ‘other’ no-audio ebooks. Which is all to say that formats have been blending for a long time now and there will soon come a time when the “book to be read” on screen will also be available as the “book to be listened to” on that same screen. Just look at how we consume content on a daily basis. What is our daily Facebook “check-in” if not a form of highly interactive digital reading, consisting of traditional reading, and watching, and listening, then reading again, and, ultimately, engaging with the text and contributing to it (augmenting it) through comments, shares, likes, etc. Bottom line: if downloaded audio remains popular, digital books in general are inextricably tied to this and will ultimately reap all kinds of benefits yet to be seen.
  • Trade publishers fared better than educational or scholarly publishers. Because there are so many ‘other’ ways to learn and get enlightened than through traditional textbooks or various types of “reference” materials usually published by educational and scholarly publishers, including encyclopedias, handbooks, almanacs, dictionaries, A-Zs, etc. etc. The word “reference” means nothing outside our industry and it’s time our industry replaced it with, simply, information. And don’t we already live in a world where free access to quality information is improving all the time? Call me optimistic, but we are certainly getting to that point. Which is to say that educational and scholarly publishers may be facing an existential dilemma if those who help create their content (teachers, scholars, researchers, etc.) start gravitating toward the idea that they can share their knowledge in ways OTHER than through traditional publishing channels. They may reap many more benefits sharing their research freely through all sorts of digital channels, even through their own sites; the really creative ones among them are doing it already.
  • Adult Books performed better than other trade categories. Two reasons come to mind: first, many children’s books (as discussed above) remain unavailable in acceptable digital format and second, genre fiction (particularly romance, erotica, and science fiction) remain highly sought after categories. Just ask any ebook vendor tracking digital reading and they are likely to confirm this (and wasn’t the voracious reading of romance books one of the reasons Scribd was forced to reconsider its “all you can read” business model recently?). Finally, genre fiction is consumed quickly and often on the go, so it lends itself well to the digital medium. This has been the case for years.

In conclusion, none of these findings are shocking or alarming in any way. They are not even that new. They simply show an industry (particularly the trade side) not yet ready to be in a committed relationship with ebooks but casually “dating” them instead; an industry still largely focused on pitting one format (print) against the other (digital) vs. making the most of the two formats not even competing with one another (if one is willing to look more closely);  and an industry that has always been better at learning from trends than setting them.

But history doesn’t need to repeat itself, does it?

Onward and upward.


Full press release below:

AAP StatShot: Trade Sales Up Slightly at Year End 2015

Format preferences, category performance, vary greatly from 2014

Washington, DC; April 26, 2016 – Publishers’ book sales for trade (consumer) books from Jan. to Dec. were up 0.8% to $7.2 billion compared to $7.1 billion in 2014. Despite a slow holiday season, the year ended slightly up, with a shift in sales for format and category.

Overall publisher revenue for 2015 was $15.4 billion, down 2.6% from the previous year. These numbers include sales for all tracked categories (Trade – fiction/non-fiction/religious, PreK-12 Instructional Materials, Higher Education Course Materials, Professional Publishing, and University Presses). Publisher net revenue is tracked monthly by the Association of American Publishers (AAP) and includes sales data from more than 1,200 publishers (#AAPStats).

A more detailed analysis of 2015 will be available with the StatShot Annual Report, which includes information from more than 1,800 publishers and market modeling, and will be available for purchase.

Some of the 2015 trends include:
· eBook sales declined this year – mostly from the Childrens & Young Adult category (C/YA down 43.3% from 2014).
· Downloaded audio continues to grow in popularity – this growth is most evident in the Adult Books category (Adult up 38.9% from 2014).
· Trade publishers fared better than educational or scholarly publishers.
· Adult Books performed better than other trade categories.

“For trade publishers, 2014 was a blockbuster year – especially in the Children’s and Young Adult Books category; so despite the challenging comps, increased sales in Adult Books helped the industry post gains in 2015,” said Tina Jordan, Vice President of the Association of American Publishers. “We’ll explore the reasons for the gains in the upcoming StatShot Annual.”
Publisher sales of trade books for the month of Dec. 2015 were up 0.3% compared to Dec. 2014, and up 0.8% for the full calendar year.

  • Children’s & Young Adult Books were up 7.3% compared to Dec. 2014, the category still ended the year down 3.2%.
  • Adult Books were down 2.6% in Dec., but ended the year with an overall growth of 2.2%.
  • Religious Presses continued several months of sales growth, up 5.6% in Dec. and 1.2% for 2015.

Total Trade Net Revenue by Category (in millions)*

Trade Formats:
Downloaded audio and paperback books have grown every month in 2015 vs. the same month in 2014.

  • Within Adult Books, downloaded audio is up 38.9% and paperback is up 16.2% for the year; eBooks declined 9.5% and hardback is down 0.5% for the year.
  • Within Children’s & Young Adult Books, paperback is up 9.5% and board books were up 12.6%; eBooks declined 43.3% and hardback is down 7.7% for the year.

Chart below depicts Trade Book sales by format from 2011 – 2015.

Educational Materials:
Revenues for PreK-12 instructional materials were up for the month of Dec. 2015 vs. Dec. 2014, but down 4.1% to $3.2 billion for the year.
Higher Education course materials were down 6.5% for the month of Dec. 2015 vs. Dec. 2014, and down 7.2% to $4.1 billion for the year.

Professional and Scholarly Publishing:
Sales for Professional Publishing, which includes business, medical, law, scientific and technical books and journals, were up 4.2% for Dec 2015 vs. Dec. 2014 and down slightly by 0.8% for 2015.
University Presses were down 3.1% year-over-year compared to the same 12 months in 2014.

* NOTE: Figures represent publishers’ net revenue for the U.S. (i.e. what publishers sell to bookstores, direct to consumer, online venues, etc.), and are not retailer/consumer sales figures.

Media Contact
Marisa Bluestone / / {202} 220-4558

About AAP
The Association of American Publishers (AAP) represents about four hundred member organizations including major commercial, digital learning and education and professional publishers alongside independents, non-profits, university presses and scholarly societies. We represent the industry’s priorities on policy, legislative and regulatory issues regionally, nationally and worldwide. These include the protection of intellectual property rights and worldwide copyright enforcement, digital and new technology issues, funding for education and libraries, tax and trade, censorship and literacy. Find us online at or on twitter at @AmericanPublish.

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