I’ve been seeing a lot of articles and blog posts in the last couple of weeks on digital and print book sales and what the numbers all mean for publishing. There are some solid points being made in many of the pieces I’ve read but I have to take all of them with a grain (or a whole container’s worth) of salt because it is easy to make this kind of data tell the story that fits your bias. None of the articles or posts have made a compelling argument that print or digital is going to “win” over the other because neither will be going away – no matter how often anyone says so.
I think anyone interested in this area should read this New York Times article and this Fortune article. Are either of them telling the whole story? No, but reading both gives a more balanced picture than reading just one or the other but there are problems with both. As the Fortune piece points out, the NY Times article is using only sales data from the traditional publishers and that leaves out a robust and growing portion of the digital book market. However, Fortune’s piece doesn’t make it clear if it is using data that counts all downloads as sales rather than paid sales only, which is equally wrong. A sale means that the consumer gives something in exchange for the content. Too many digital books in the Amazon data are free – therefore, they shouldn’t count as a sale. That skews the numbers just as badly as only using the traditional publisher data.
An additional discussion around this topic which is in the Fortune piece and has dominated the discussions in my social media feeds around these two articles is the pricing issue. Yes, digital book prices for traditionally published books are higher than they were a few years ago. Mostly those prices are the same or higher than the print versions. Many readers – myself included – will not pay those prices for digital books. Everyone has different reasons for this – I have a couple of different reasons. One is that digital books aren’t truly purchased but rented and I’m willing to pay a higher price to own something. Another is that publishers have a lower cost for digital books – no paper, no ink, no shipping, less storage – and that should be passed to the consumer. Do I think that all digital books should be less than a dollar? No – authors need to be able to make a living and publishers need to make a profit. But do I think the digital version should be a dollar or two less than the mass market paperback? Absolutely.
That said, I do read both print and digital. While I know that there are readers who only read one format or the other, the majority of readers that I talk to – in person or online – read both and choose their format based on numerous factors.