Chicken Little and the Digital Book Market

This is the first Wild West Thursday post on my new blog. The old ones are still over at Alive & Knitting if you want to catch up on the discussion.

Remember Chicken Little? He was the one who ran around, certain that the sky was falling. (Turns out that this is a very old story about mass hysteria and its effects. Twenty-five centuries!) There has been a lot of chatter on author loops lately (well, on one loop in particular) about 99-cent boxed sets and how their prevalence is affecting the market for books. The notion here is that 99-cent boxed sets are destroying the market, because readers will become so accustomed to getting books cheap that they’ll stop paying for them at all. This is clearly a trend with huge implications for authors.

Or it would be, if it were true.

Spending time in the publishing industry means becoming familiar with its tropes and patterns. The fact is that there is always something or someone destroying the book market, at least if you believe what you read in the industry trades – yet the book market keeps on keeping on. This year, the guilty party might be seen to be 99-cent digital boxed sets. Last year, it was free digital books. In the years before that, it was self-published authors flooding the marketplace with unedited books. Before that, it was Amazon, or maybe Wal-mart, or big box stores, or other retailers whose roots weren’t in the business of selling books. For as long as I’ve been a published author (and probably before that), there’s been a big bad wolf out there (there I go, mixing my metaphors and folk tales!) gobbling up all the opportunity for writers and publishers to make a decent living.

What people are responding to here is change. Change is frightening. Change makes us angry. Chicken Little had his claw on a fundamental human trait.

The thing that’s not changing here is that there are readers who want to read books for free. This has always been the case. It could be that they believe books should be free. It could be that they’re avid readers and price becomes a concern when you consume a lot of any product. It could just be that they’re frugal. My point is simply that these readers have always been around and that’s just fine. Some are librarians. Some are enthusiasts who press books on other people. It’s not by any means a one-sided transaction or a simple issue. In the old days of print books, those readers went to libraries, used book stores, church sales and bought stripped books at flea markets. Their presence isn’t new. They might have e-readers now, but their tendencies are exactly the same as ever.

What is changing is the digital book market. It’s evolving rapidly, which is interesting in itself, and this year, there have been some very big changes. I believe that the market is maturing, which means that the traits that have characterized the digital book market for the last few years weren’t new standards but anomalies. Any changes in the market for popular fiction will be felt first and most strongly by those of us who write genre fiction.

Let’s look at a few big recent trends:
• a diminished market power of backlist
One very strange trait of the digital book market has been that backlist titles have dominated book sales so emphatically. It wasn’t uncommon for an author to have a backlist title that sold at consistently high levels for a long period of time. This isn’t characteristic of the book market as a whole. There are two big contributing factors here, one from supply and one from demand. On the supply side, many authors held reverted book rights and entered the digital book market themselves by creating new editions of those backlist titles. On the demand side, many readers were buying e-readers for the first time. What we tend to do when we commit to new technology is that we acquire our favorite content in the new format. It happened when music became available on CD’s. It happened when books became digital. That’s a finite curve, though – everyone has a list of older titles they want to have on the new device, and once they’ve bought that list, they will turn to new content. I suspect that the 99-cent digital boxed set (many of which are compiled of backlist titles) is the last hurrah of backlist books.

• more controls and filters by digital book portals
As algorithms become more sophisticated – which they do day by day – and digital portals filter against explicit content, it becomes less easy for authors to “game the system” – that’s Mark LeFebvre’s phase – or to use little tricks to propel a book into prominence. Not only is there a lot of more content available, but loopholes are being closed. This shifts the format to success back to the old combination of good content at a good price published on a consistent schedule.

• sexually explicit content is no longer an easy sell
There was a time – oh, until about March of 2013 – that it was comparatively easy to make a lot of money writing erotic romance and erotica. There was no need for promotion or advertising. Making the content available was enough. In a way, it seemed that digital book readers were hungry for this kind of content. Maybe that was the case, as much of it was edgy and might not have been published in a traditional market. But a lot of sorting has been added this year by digital book portals, particularly to niche sexually explicit content, probably to ensure that they aren’t found to be trafficking in pornography. It might also be because they want to ensure that such content is visible only to adults, not minors. This filtering echoes the decisions that used to be made by traditional publishers. It’s a lot harder to make big money selling explicit content online than it was even 10 months ago. It can still be done, but just the fact that it’s not simple will compel a number of authors to stop publishing.

• big publishers are learning better how to sell digital books
Finally! This not only provides more competition for books on a title by title basis, but it influences the options for self-published authors at a higher level. Big publishers make better partners in many cases for digital portals than individual authors ever could—such publishers control larger lists of titles and have more budget to spend on promotion. This means that the portals will likely skew their algorithms to be more favorable to digital books from traditional publishers – which means less visibility for indie-published books.

In the end, the digital book market looks more and more like the traditional book market every day. Earlier this year, I compared the sales patterns for two digital boxed sets of my medieval romances: one published by me and the other published by Random House. The sales curves were radically different, but given the lag in reporting times, I used sales numbers for the second half of 2012. By the time I wrote those posts in May 2013, the patterns were already changing. My next royalty report showed sales for the first half of 2013 as being very similar: the self-published boxed set was selling in a pattern very similar to the traditionally published boxed set.

What we’re seeing is that the sales anomalies that indie-published writers came to believe were typical of the digital market are disappearing. Just as in traditional publishing, a single book is increasingly unlikely to sell at the same high volume for a sustained period of time. Just as in traditional publishing, many many books will see a sales spike at or around their on sale date, then a drop in sales, and smaller spikes with the release of new frontlist titles by the same author. As indie authors are given the option of setting books up for pre-orders, this pattern is going to become even more pronounced.

There remain some differences, however, and they’re important ones. Digital publishing does still offer the opportunity for books to be “discovered” long after their on sale date and be catapulted into visibility. In such a crowded market, that may be a less frequent occurrence than was once the case. One excellent trait of the digital book market is that backlist is readily available for readers to discover a linked series that is already in progress. Another thing I really like about the digital book market is the immediacy of publication – it would be hard for me to go back to a one year production cycle, after the writing of a book is complete. In a changing market, I like the ability to make my work available sooner.

What do you think about the changes in the digital book market? Do you see 99-cent boxed sets as a sign of the end of the world? Did I miss any trends or changes that you see as influential? How about any advantages of the digital book market?