Thursday, March 10, 2011


Knowing which of your formats (p-mm, p-hc, or e-) your audience is buying and where they buy them is arguably the most critical factor in considering any publishing contract, and also in deciding to shift from traditional to self-publishing.
The recent Rasmussen Report (telephone survey Feb 17/18, 2011) confirmed that as of that date, only 8% of US readers read e-format (4% on dedicated e-readers, 4% on other devices). 71% still buy a print book at some form of retail outlet, and 21% order print books online. That’s all books, not just genre fiction.
So the US book-buyer market (Feb 2011) is only 8% e-book as an overall average.
8%. So 92% are buying and reading in print.
So consider the spectrum of distribution for traditionally published genre fiction paperback authors. For this comparison, bookstores = chains, indies, all online, anything not wholesale. Wholesale = Walmart, Target, Safeway, Albertsons, Fred Meyer, Costco, etc.
Author A - e-book everywhere; p-book at the lower end of print distribution - shelved in section in bookstores, very little if any in wholesale.
Author B - e-book everywhere; p-book at the mid-point of print distribution - in section in bookstores and some presence at Walmart and Target and the bigger wholesalers at least.
Author C - e-book everywhere and supported; p-book toward the upper end of the print distribution - promoted via coop, paid placement in the front of bookstores, deeply distributed with position on the placement cards through all wholesale outlets including airports, Walgreens, etc, etc. Has a reasonable chance of being slotted almost anywhere books are sold.
All traditionally published authors fall somewhere along the spectrum A - C and in the US all are already being offered to the 8% pool of e-book readers.
From % e-sales for romance/romantic suspense recently aired:
Author A - anything up to 35% of sales might be e-books
Author B - 10 - 12% and slowly but steadily rising as the months go by
Author C - 3 - 6%. And rising, yes, but print outweighs e-sales by a massive margin.
[Note: my own figures may be as high as 20% e-sales in the first month, but that % falls as the print sales continue to roll in]
Let me clarify: this does not mean Author C (which is any of the bestsellers) is not selling well in e-format. Most Author Cs are selling as well if not better in e-format than most successful indie authors, and at significantly higher prices. What it does mean is that Author C sells many more print books.
To underscore that, as of this moment, for even my older titles (constantly in print 10+ years) the monthly e-sales are still lower than the monthly p-sales. That is shifting, but e-sales do not dominate p-book sales even there, yet.
There’s been a lot of speculation on blogs all over as to when traditionally published bestsellers will turn their backs on major publishers and go the self-publishing route with e-book and POD. 
Absorb the figures above, and the most likely answer is: Not anytime soon.
Any established author knows that your book must appear in front of your already established readers in the format those readers want, and in the place where those readers go to buy books, for you to retain your sales levels. For any genre fiction bestseller, that format is currently 95% p-book (roughly 85% in wholesale, 10% in bookstores incl online).
Is any bestseller going to turn their backs on 95% of their established audience and sales? No. So is any bestseller going to move from the publishers who can guarantee them reaching that print audience and making those sales? No - or at least, not yet.
What we are seeing with the uptake of e-books is predominantly the readers who used to buy in bookstores and/or online moving to e-books, plus readers who haven’t been buying recently lured back by the technology. That’s not surprising. And with the decline of bookstores, we’ll see more readers moving first online to order print books, and subsequently a percentage of those will take the next step and move to e-books. But the wholesale print reader hasn’t yet shifted to any great degree - and why would they?
What we have seen so far (8%) is just the beginning of the transition of readers - even if all bookstores closed tomorrow, and all those bookstore print readers migrated immediately to e-books, genre fiction paperback bestsellers would still be selling mostly in print via wholesale (approx 15% e-books & 85% in print via wholesale)
What will significantly impact the speed at which e-books replace p-books is the contraction of shelf space in wholesale.
The day either Walmart or Target axes the floor space they currently devote to genre paperback bestsellers is the day genre fiction publishing starts on the downhill run to e-book + POD only.
That will be the first point of pause for traditionally published bestselling genre fiction authors. 
By point of pause I mean the day those authors will have to sit down and do the sums about whether to stick with traditional publishers or move to self-publishing, and for bestselling authors, those sums won’t just be about $. They’ll be about reader reach. They’ll be about what balance publishers and authors might strike to continue to cater for established readers still reading in print. For most authors, the ideal is to not have to stop print publishing until virtually all readers have changed to e-books, but realistically it’s not going to happen like that. 
There will come a point when doing an off-set print run and distributing mass market books for even bestsellers will become commercially unviable. For some genre fiction bestsellers, it may be that publishing via traditional publishers to the very end will be the preferable option, depending on the deals struck and the size of their established audience sticking to print that they would otherwise have to leave behind.
No long-term established author is going to want to leave welded-on print-readers behind. Uncatered for. We’d have to be daft.
For established authors, it’s always about readers (audience). 
Yes, a balance will need to be struck between the finances and audience retention, but for all long-term established authors, bestsellers or not, anywhere from Author A’s position to Author C’s position above, from the point where our individual print distribution starts to decline below a certain point, we’re going to come to our first point of pause, and that point will be different for every author. Once we each reach that point, if we continue with major publishers we’ll need to keep assessing at every contract, at every successive stage of the transition as our audience shifts into reading e-books.
It’s our audience’s behavior - how they react to the decline in availability of print books - that’s going to dictate the speed of the transition.
Clearly the Author As are going to have to face their decisions first, then the Author Bs, until we finally reach the bestseller Author Cs. For bestsellers, the first point of pause won’t come until the wholesale print distribution of our works significantly decreases, and at least 50% of our audience has converted to e-books. 
So that’s why established authors are still signing contracts with traditional publishers, and will for at least a while longer. Because we have very large audiences out there who are still determinedly reading in print. It’s not all about e-books for us.
And how does that impact on pricing? Because our pricing is solidly established in print mass market, and for our audience en masse there is no significant difference between print and e-book with respect to what they get from our works. Which is the point we’ll be discussing next week.
To me it is no surprise that newbie indie authors are signing with Big 6 publishers - those new authors want to step outside the 8% pool and have a shot at the other 92% of readers. Mind you, I think Amanda Hocking has sidestepped the point and gone beyond the 8% without major publishers, but I suspect she won’t be an easy act to follow.
For traditionally published authors thinking to switch to self-publishing, what % of your established audience would you be willing to leave behind in print?
So...the big question. How soon before the genre fiction ecosystem goes 100% e-book? 
Until I considered the recent data, I was inclined to imagine 3 to 5 years. Now...I’d opt for more than 5 but less than 10, but it ultimately depends on the wholesale print business - and that could change overnight. Any night.
The specific author %e-sales above were drawn from romance/romantic suspense works. Does anyone have similar data on mysteries, thrillers, fantasy works? I would imagine these might differ, but probably not by a lot.
One last point, and for this I’ll speak from my own experience, having 92% of my audience in print severely limits what I can do by way of promotional e-books, because, for instance, doing e-only shorts connected to my major works will seriously aggravate my print readership, who see this as rewarding the e-book readers and discriminating against them. No established author with a large print readership can afford to do this. (So self-published authors can make hay while the sun shines, but it won't always be so - not once established authors start to shift)
On that note: On April 5th, Avon Impulse will release ROYAL WEDDINGS, a collection of three shorts from me, Gaelen Foley and Loretta Chase - all established historical romance authors. These shorts are not connected to our major works, and we are working on making it as easy as possible for our print readership to access these works without having to formally move to e-book readers or apps to do it. The only way we could have done such a release, timed with that other royal wedding, was to do it in e-book + POD, and use a big publisher to take care of the details.
If anyone is interested in the story behind ROYAL WEDDINGS, ask below, and I’ll go into it. 
One more post to go before the big one on pricing
Topic of next blog post: will be posted in comments below on Sunday.
Next blog post: will be posted next Friday
CAVEAT: Nothing posted on this blog, or in its comments, should involve commercially sensitive information. Contracted authors please exercise due diligence in your comments.
All blog posts by the author should be viewed as personal opinion and postulation. Said opinions will alter to reflect changing facts.


  1. I've been seeing the "ebook domination is just around the corner" claims for about 15 years now. So I'm always skeptical of it, and agree that 3 to 5 years is unlikely, but ten years is possible. Even then, I don't know, because I'm not sure how much we're projecting our own personal expectations of how we'll be reading over that time frame.

    I can understand why people who spend time online think the change is coming sooner than ten years. Part of it is because we tend to assume that other people -- other readers, because we're readers as well as writers -- are just like us. We're so connected to the industry, we're so aware of the changes that are happening, and we're so passionate about books, that we forget that the vast majority of readers don't, in fact, obsess about books and publishing. That most readers buy only one or two books a month (and I hope we're going to discuss those numbers, and the reasons why readers choose a particular book, which has some significant bearing on the price issue), unlike most of us, who probably buy (or at least read, from one source or another) far more than that.

    Also, if we're online and discussing books on a blog, we're likely to be more tech-friendly than the average reader (at least the average current reader, perhaps not the average young reader who will grow the market in the future), which skews our perception of the electronic market.

    Bottom line: we need to be aware that our own, personal experience with how we read and what we read cannot always be relied on to indicate what OTHERS, outside the industry, except to the extent that they're consuming the industry's product without really having an insider's view into the production of the product, are doing. I remember -- this was probably ten or more years ago -- when RWA did a study on reader habits, and a major question was what influenced a reader to choose a book, and I was shocked at how relatively few (compared to the 100% I expected) listed the author's name (meaning it was someone they'd read before and wanted to read again) as the primary reason for choosing a book, and some follow-up interviews suggested that, with a few obvious exceptions, many readers considered authors essentially interchangeable, and were more likely to pick up a book based on the cover and the advertising copy on the back. Which is pretty much diametrically opposed to how I choose books.

  2. Great post as always, Stephanie.

    And I, for one, would be interested in the story behind your Royal Wedding e-book!

  3. Stephanie, I'm really enjoying your D&D blog. Thank you for spending so much time explaining these complicated issues. I'm contracted for a 3-book series with Sourcebooks and am looking forward to the day I'll see my book on the shelves.

    Congratulations on your upcoming release for Avon Impulse. I've been following the news closely and look forward to ordering Katharine Ashe's e-novella (she was on our blog today) as well as the ROYAL WEDDING shorts. Would love to hear how you got involved with Impulse.

    I found your stats on wholesale vs. bookstore sales eye opening. Had no idea wholesalers had such a big piece of the pie. Love learning as much as I can about the industry. That's why I love D&D.

    Thanks again.

  4. As a relatively new mid-list author I'm finding that my mass market paperbacks are not being as widely distributed as they used to be before the recession, Borders, etc etc. My local Target for example only shelves the top 25 best selling romances and I'm obviously not at that point yet. This, in turn affects print runs, which affects the opportunity for someone to see and pick up the book, which affects my sales which in turn means less chance of a new contract, etc etc.

    What I have seen, however reflects what you suggest above. A big growth in digital sales of my back list e-books and my older trade paperback series, which now sell more digital copies than paper ones. I also agree that it will take considerably more time to convince the top sellers to whole heartedly embrace the ebook or self-publishing. There is no incentive for them to do so yet. But as an Author B, I'll probably be facing those decisions sooner rather than later. :)

  5. I'm a brand spanking new author whose first book didn't take off like a rocket, so I'm definitely in the A category.

    I believe that with B&N as the only game in time for most authors and select authors being carried by the Walmarts etc, the bestselling authors' books are the only books that will be widely available everywhere (kind of like now). That doesn't leave many options for authors in the other categories. And then the question is, how do the publishers build new talent? Just in the digital market?

  6. Stephanie, another interesting and provocative post. This is one of the reasons I love coming here on Fridays!

    However, I want to point out something about Rasmussen, the source of the poll data cited for the percentages of print vs. ebook readers. Rasmussen does not poll cell phones. They ONLY poll landlines.

    That means their methodology excludes an important demographic for this particular poll: people who don't pay for landlines and instead just keep cell phones. These folks tend to be urban, mobile, technologically forward-thinking, own other electronic goodies (such as iPads and other tablets), and are likely to have e-reading software installed on them. In other words...a key chunk of the people who buy ebooks.

  7. @ Cate - excellent point I hadn't picked up re the landlines versus cellphones (I did check Rasmussen's questions but didn't see that). Exactly how much it skews the figures I'm not sure - definitely some % - but given the sheer bulk of readers still buying in print wholesale, the bestsellers are still going to have to wait for them to shift.

    @ Gin, your points re "our" views and how we as a group extrapolate from our experience...absolutely. That IMO is one of our biggest blindspots - that our market isn't us, and too often we get caught up in how exciting this is to us, and forget our audience is not listening, and still curling up with a printed book.

  8. @ Tracey - for probably a decade, Walmart has been the biggest bookseller in the US, certainly for mass market paperbacks. But they sell high numbers of a select few, and have not so much breadth of selections.

    Things are already changing even there, with reductions in floor space and consequent reduction in stocking (see Beverley's experience). Which means a reduction in availability and that, too, will increase the pressure on readers to have a look at the e-book-readers Walmart is now carrying...same with Target. So it's shifting, definitely, but the % e-sales over p-sales for the broadest market (the bestsellers) - whatever the actual figure for that % now, it's still way short of where it needs to be for bestsellers to leave the print world behind.

  9. Re Royal Weddings - this was the brainchild of my (our) agent - Nancy Yost - who is the agent of all three authors, me, Gaelen Foley and Loretta Chase. At her agency christmas drinks party, all were chatting about the upcoming royal nuptials, and Nancy had a "what if?" moment. She spoke to the Avon folk then and there, at the party, and they were keen - next day she rang around me, Gaelen and Loretta, and we all jumped on board, agreeing to drop all else and do a short story involving a royal wedding.

    Of course, mine didn't turn out quite that short . I'm well known for writing long, and so the short was 13K. Combined with the other two, we're looking at 23 or 24 K- worth of Regency/Victorian weddings.

    We all had the stories done and in before end of January, and Avon swung into production - professional copyediting, usual galley proofing, cover, etc, etc - it was both smooth and impressive, and the whole thing was done and in and ready to go by early March. So pretty much 2 months from inception to upload ready, and all without a hitch.

    The only hitch we did run into wasn't with Avon but Amazon, who were initially pricing on all non-US stores as if the work was 3 novels in one, instead of three shorts. As Amazon controls the non-US pricing, not the US publishers, that took a little wrangling to bring down, although in Amazon's defense, they had rushed to get the work up and with a pre-order button (lovely to see such enthusiasm!) but all without a description, so they didn't actually know they were making a mistake.

    As for the work being a launch-month title for Avon Impulse, that was pure serendipity. Literally. We didn't submit it to any line. We went with Avon because a) we're all currently Avon authors, and b) because to do all this in the 3 months from Xmas to early April simply wasn't possible for us, all busily writing contracted works, to do ourselves, or even organize for someone else to do for us.

    I can't speak for Gaelen and Loretta, although I expect the same is true for them, too, but for me the main attraction in the project was the fun angle, and getting something short, breezy, and topical out there for our readers to enjoy. At 1.99.

  10. Courtesy of Cate’s and Gin’s comments, a problem I’ve been wrestling with for sometime has crystallized (thank you, ladies!) I’ve often been struck by the feeling, when checking in on Kindleboards or Joe Konrath’s blog and many other places, versus what I see when I look at my e-book sales, and those of other established authors, and what I get from talking to my ex-p-book-now-e-book readers, that I’m listening to tales about 2 different groups of readers. And I truly think I am.

    I totally accept that a large % of the current e-book market is, for want of a better term, the e-book enthusiasts (if anyone can think of a better term, please post it! - this group of readers includes many self-published authors, but many others as well). This group is excited by the whole concept of e-books, and although they’ve been p-book-readers previously, as e-book-readers they are now diving into the e-book revolution, the “experiments,” the low-price options, try this, try that. The whole freedom of the self-publishing route. You all know these readers - you meet them all over the internet, twitter, facebook, etc - they are vocal and passionate and hugely excited about e-books.

    Being a member of the “e-enthusiasts” isn’t a purely generational, age-based thing - a decent percentage of this group are over 40. The e-book-enthusiasts are interested in e-books for reasons that go beyond “I just want a good story.”

    The other group of e-book readers are heavy-duty p-book readers who have migrated to e-books for one or more of three reasons: the ease of portablility when traveling; a physical storage issue; or the ease of availability versus p-books. These reasons always feature when I talk to my readers who have made the switch. It was all three reasons for me.

    Whether e-book-enthusiasts also originally shifted for any of these reasons is beside the point - this second group of readers are quite different because it’s those reasons only that drove the switch for them. They are not enthusiastic about e-books over p-books beyond the resolution of the issues behind those reasons. This group will read a p-book or an e-book and not care either way - they now read e-books because of the convenience c.f. those 3 reasons.

    Continued next comment>>>

  11. This later group - let’s call them the “story-focused readers” - care only for one thing. The story - the experience they derive. Most have been reading for decades, and have very set patterns of buying. Low general retail pricing has little effect on their buying habits because to these readers their investment is not defined firstly by $, but by the time they invest in reading a book - and that’s the same whether they read a 0.99 or 9.99 novel length work. For this group, the $ is secondary to the time invested and the experience gained - this group are the most furious when they discover they’ve invested a few hours in reading the first third of a book and it doesn’t deliver for them. That author is immediately crossed off their list. I’m not saying $ is not important to this group - they’ve been keeping used book stores in business for decades and will grab anything they regard as a real bargain as fast as the next reader - I’m saying that cheap books (original price) is not going to garner their attention.

    I will naturally be returning to this point when we get to our discussion on price itself, but one thing I’ve learned: “story-focused readers” almost always buy on author name. It’s hard to get them to try a new author because they’ve been burned so many times in the past (not in money only but in time and disappointment) - so price is the least of the lures for this group. They are inherently, from their own personal experience, wary of low-priced works.

    Would anyone disagree, that at present with the genre fiction readers (our audience) we have something like (percentages are just rough estimate):
    10 % e-book readers = roughly 5 % e-book enthusiasts + 5% story-focused readers
    90% p-book readers.

    We can juggle the 10 and the 90% figures to suit whatever we believe, but the critical point for genre fiction is this: are the 90% still to shift “story-focused readers” with story-focused readers’ buying habits, or are they e-book-enthusiasts, who flock to low price?

    I think the fact that the 90% have still not shifted to e-books suggests they are unlikely to be e-book-enthusiasts. I know that for my own solid audience, most of those definitely are story-focused readers.

    What will this mean for authors and publishers when the 90% finally transitions?

  12. Next Friday’s topic: So You Write Fiction? Which Fiction?

    ...or we need to explore what our product delivers to our customers before we try to price or market it.

  13. Interesting line of argument, Stephanie. And food for thought.

    But... what about those of us who are *both* ebook enthusiasts *and* story-focused readers?

    I've paid up to $12.99 (even though I grumbled) for a novel I really wanted from Lynn Kurland. I won't do that on a regular basis...but I wanted it baaaad. I care far more about the story than the price. My time is precious to me (which is one of the reasons I love my samples so I can see whether I want to keep reading!). And I buy all my novels on the Kindle. If one isn't out on Kindle, I'm probably not going to buy it—or I'll wait until it is. In fact, I am RE-buying novels I already own in paper for the Kindle because I'd rather read them on it. I'm also indie author and I'm hugely enthusiastic about the potential of ebooks.

    Maybe I'm unusual...but it seems to me that these two groups aren't mutually exclusive.

  14. So I'm sure my comment actually posted last time, after the fourth time I had tried it, because this time I am subscribed to comments and it came through in e-mail. And yet the comment has disappeared.

    I don't think I was saying anything either rude or remotely spam-like.

    Stephanie, can you clarify if this is a technological glitch?

  15. I’m saying that cheap books (original price) is not going to garner their attention.

    I would replace the word "garner" with "keep." Story-focused readers will DNF a book after fifty pages. They will read samples and then delete them if they don't catch their interest. But there is an immense amount of empirical evidence that demonstrates that low-priced books will, in fact, catch people's attention.

    The markets are not entirely separable for one reason: both enthusiasts have the same Amazon rank. If your name is unknown, the only way a new author may have to get it in front of the story-focused readers at all is to get the attention of the latter, and then deliver a good enough story to keep yourself high up the Amazon rankings for a long enough period of time.

    I'm a story-focused reader, and very particular about what I'll read. I will pay $30 for a book by an author I adore.

    And if I see a book by an unknown author for $2.99 that has stayed in the top 20 of the Amazon Historical Romance rankings for two weeks, I'll check it out. I don't do the same for a book by an unknown that is $14.99.

  16. @ Intrepid - no idea why your posts weren't showing, I got them in email, too. And you've posted before, and posted since, so I'm putting it down to gremlins in the ether.

  17. Again, I completely agree that the groups are not mutually exclusive - in fact, I'd see it more as a spectrum. There are definitely those who only buy low price, and those who buy based on a mixture of criteria, and for some of those low-price isn't a recommendation - although everyone likes lower priced books overall - but I was specifically talking about (because that was what I was thinking about) the defined price of a book (meaning the price a work is set at before any discount)...and even as I'm writing that, I realize that such a concept may not exist any longer in the e-book world. Because price can be altered with just a click - so the price is whatever the price is now.

    Hmm...this is why discussion is good. One of my problems is that I worry about how readers who've paid the full price will feel if a book is discounted permanently (not promotionally, like a short-term bargain, but permanently cut price). I mean, an e-book is never a true new release - it's just there and will be "new" to readers as they find it - why should be the price be high initially (to take extra $ from your welded on readers) and then lower later for readers who just happen to stumble onto it and are not the readers who've supported you throughout your career? I suppose my attitude has always been to give my fan-readers the best deal, and if others want to join the club that's fine, but I really hate any situation that smacks of exploiting my die-hard fans - or am I thinking about this all wrong?

  18. Interesting way of dividing up the market into specific patterns, which is definitely better than thinking in terms of one behemoth called "the reader," since there is, of course, no such thing.

    I might do it a slighltly different way (which gets back to some of the issues in the bestseller list discussion) -- people who are actively looking for new/more/different books, and people who are a little more passive (I don't mean this negatively; it just is what it is) in acquiring their books.

    The actives ones (probably included in the e-enthusiasts, where they overlap with the story-focused) are also looking for new books in an active way, zipping around the internet, visiting review sites and smaller publishers, joining reader communities, checking out bestseller lists, reading excerpts at smashwords, etc. FWIW, I'm in that group, although I don't read electronically, for the most part, so it defines both e-readers and p-readers.

    The second group isn't actively looking for new books. They're perfectly happy to read a book by an author they've read before, so they might be interested in hearing when it comes out. Or if a friend says, "you've gotta read this," they might try it out. Or if there's other buzz, again, they might read it. Or if it's in the endcap at the bookstore, and the cover catches their attention, they might read it. And whether it's paper or electrons, that doesn't so much define this group. And, really, given the huge number of books available, compared to the number of books this group is likely to read in a given month, they don't really need to be an active searcher for new books. Or maybe that's my bias again, and I'm assuming that there's an overlap between "reads only one to four books a month" and the passive readers group.

    I hadn't put this classification into words for myself before now, but I do think the active/passive distinction might make sense. And going back to how we assume everyone's like ourselves, we (as writers or otherwise obsessed with books) are probably going to be in the active-searching category, rather than the passive-recipient category. I have no idea how the percentages would break down, although I assume there are far more passive recipients than active searchers.

  19. I just spotted an interesting comment--from Hachette Livre's president--on e-book sales vs. p-book (via

    "'In 2010, the electronic book accounted for 8% of market value and 10% in quantity. But since the beginning of 2011, it rose to 23% of quantities sold, which is what we see on our sales. This market is growing very rapidly,' says Arnaud Noury."

  20. It’s all well and good to talk about reaching the majority of readers, but for a lot of midlisters, it’s also about staying afloat financially. I know for a fact that some of my friends are out-earning their NY books with their self-published ones. Eventually, I think a lot of NY-published authors are going to do the same math Barry Eisler just did and come to the same conclusion: self-publishing might just be better for their bottom line. Personally, I’m REALLY hoping NY will figure out how to bridge the gap and stay afloat so we can have our cake and pay for it too.