As the internet became an essential component of our daily lives, and written content began transitioning from paper to screen, there were apocalyptic predictions of print’s impending demise. While newspapers retreated behind paywalls and magazines began dropping print editions to concentrate on web content, publishing houses started championing ebooks as the digital alternative to those dated-looking hardbacks and paperbacks.
For a while, this philosophy reaped rich rewards. Being able to transport dozens of books in a single object the size and weight of a small paperback was seen as revolutionary, while the lower costs involved with ebooks encouraged people to read (and buy) more than they previously had. Ebooks gave the publishing industry a chance to fight back against declining real-world sales on a struggling high street, and dedicated ereaders briefly flourished in a market where single-function products were otherwise on the way out. Amazon’s lightweight Kindle became a minor fashion accessory at the start of this decade, and page-flickers became the new page-turners.
Perhaps inevitably, the boom didn’t last. Sales of ebooks fell among the big five American publishing houses in 2015 compared to 2014’s figures, while the UK giant Waterstones stopped selling Kindles last year and dedicated the reclaimed floor space to selling hardbacks. Standing alone among a declining market, Amazon has seen sales of ebooks rise in 2016, though this is believed to be partly due to amateur writers self-publishing under the Amazon umbrella.
However, the ebook phenomenon isn’t necessarily in terminal decline. The publishing industry as a whole has seen a resurgence in recent years, and although ebook sales have fallen slightly, they remain lucrative. As the ebook market has matured, people have become more selective about the titles they’re willing to read on their tablets and phones. Sales of visual print books (like arts and crafts or children’s stories) have outstripped digital versions, whereas ebooks remain popular among fans of romance, crime or sci-fi authors.
The second trend worth noting is the burgeoning self-publishing industry that now accounts for a quarter of the UK’s digital books market. No longer do budding authors have to mail-merge pleas for representation to agencies in the Writers & Artists Yearbook – Amazon alone offer three different platforms for self-publishing. The Kindle Direct Publishing arm enables people to publish their book in a matter of minutes, recouping the majority of royalties from markets as diverse as Italy and India. It’s even possible to revise ebooks at any time, rather than having to go through the endless correspondence involved in second editions or reprints.
Thirdly, and most significantly, the ebook market has evolved into audiobooks. This is perhaps the ultimate extrapolation of the simplicity ebooks offer over bulky print versions, eliminating any need to actually hold an object or turn the pages. Audiobooks also offer the advantage of being a pleasurable distraction while driving or commuting, while the soothing tones of a good storyteller maintain a legacy of entertainment that pre-dates publishing by centuries. Amazon once again dominates the audiobook sector with Audible, though iTunes, Audiobooks.com and many others offer competition. This industry has also embraced the all-you-can-consume business model of other streaming services like Spotify and Netflix, alongside more conventional pay-as-you-read funding methods.
If you choose to categorize ebooks and audiobooks as separate entities, the former’s glory days may well be in the past. Taken in tandem, however, our appetite for digital books remains undimmed, good news for writers, publishers and audiences alike.
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