Why Pretend to be Mystified by the Ebook Sales Slowdown?

November 19, 2013 by Thad McIlroy

Why all the head-scratching over the long-awaited “ebooks sales are no longer growing and perhaps even shrinking a bit” moment? It’s what the major players in the industry have been striving for years to accomplish. After many months of putative “sales slowdowns” we now apparently have a genuine decline. One percent, maybe two, maybe 2.7%. Whatever.

For the rest of this entry I’m going to indulge in a fantasy that the numbers provided by the Association of American Publishers (AAP) have magically become truly representative of the state of U.S. trade book sales. This is even though they measure only a fraction of U.S. publishing companies (1202 publishers; yes, OK, including most of the largest ones), and virtually no self-published sales. This is also because of the sporadic bits of data: I always feel like they’re dealing from the bottom of the deck.

You’ll find the “shocking news” reported everywhere. Here’s PW’s. The varying versions of the sales reports could have been written by drunkards, mainly because there are so many indeterminate variables in the data. Children’s books, religious books, adult trade, paperback vs. hardcover, six months vs. nine months vs. year-to-year comparisons. I can’t imagine making a business decision based on this data other than to resolve to get better data.

I prepared a little spreadsheet tonight:














And I prepared some rough comparisons of the inside page designs of a two current bestsellers.


In each case the page shot on the left is from the print version, on the right is from the Kindle version.


I’m so tired of pretending that this is a complex issue demanding deep thought to find a resolution. What I see is that you pay about 70% of the print price to get some badly-designed digital book pages that are much more difficult to read than the generally well-designed print versions. The books can’t be resold, often disappear suddenly from your library necessitating a call to tech support. They can just barely be loaned, and are all but impossible to find at your public library.

What’s not to like?

The folly of many traditional publishers is that their passive-aggressive actions are only obscuring the real battle being fought: a world of writers forming direct pipelines to their readers, always listening to what their readers want and going out of their way to provide it.

These days walking down Main Street in any big city leaves you at risk of collision with a cellphone addict. Usually they raise their heads just a moment before contact, give me a brief look of disdain, and move briskly along. If they’d pause long enough I always think I’d tell them, “Just because you can’t see me doesn’t mean I don’t exist.” It the same sort of thought I have about where publishing is headed today.

November 20, 2013: According to a report about a report in The Bookseller, ebooks  are “too pricey for 16-24 market… Whatever the internal politics and business issues within publishing, young people won’t care: all they want is a price that seems fair—or better than that,” he told The Bookseller. “Their message to publishers would be: ‘Get this fixed’.”

November 22, 2013: From Mike Shatzkin’s blog: “And now we have the anomaly of sales reporting from the AAP, once again working without totally internal Amazon IP, that suggests ebook sales are going down. Are they going down? Or are self-published titles exclusively inside Amazon taking share away from the part of the business we can see and count for ourselves and masking the ebook sales growth that is actually taking place? I have no evidence, but that strikes me as a more likely reality than that ebook sales have actually fallen year-to-year recently.”

December 30, 2103: Mark Coker from Smashwords reiterates his compelling find that his “2013 survey found that books priced $2.99 and $3.99, on average, received about four times as many unit sales as books priced over $7.99.” This is why I think the large publishers are playing a truly desperate end-game. They’re trying to keep prices high, which sometimes wins the match, but they’re certainly losing the game.



  • Richard Pipe

    Nov 20th, 2013 : 8:56 AM

    Doesn’t this highlight the problems of reading systems rather than production?

    Amazon’s reading systems require significant watering down of print book design. In sample 1 an adjustment of viewport width and font-size would have significantly changed the presentation. This is a worst case presentation. In sample 2 the glaring right-aligned error is a reading system problem and probably works on iBooks.

    If a reading system uses half of CSS-1 or some nonsense subset of CSS-2 publishers/production don’t have a fighting chance. For highly styled horizontal layout content we are still a long distance from anything sensible in eBook reading systems.

    The answer is to create versions for each targeted reading system. That is easy if you have the right tools.

  • Thad McIlroy

    Nov 20th, 2013 : 12:41 PM


    I’d argue that this is a problem both of reading systems AND production. On the one hand the non-interoperable and constantly changing diversity of file formats and display devices makes it both difficult and expensive to produce high-quality pages. This is an industry-wide problem that is not being addressed by publishers with the vigor it demands. We can’t dictate anything to Amazon, so I just sit in the corner mumbling obscenities when I think about its dog’s breakfast approach to file formats and display variance. But why is Apple allowed to have a divergent format? Yes, it’s optimized for Apple devices and we still confuse Jobs with God. But if that’s the basis on which we decide that broad format variations are acceptable than we need to permit the same degree of variation from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and Google (at a minimum).

    This is unworkable, but there are ways to at least optimize for the deficiencies of each format, but that requires the publishers invest $$$ with knowledgeable service vendors such as you.

  • Colleen Cunningham

    Nov 20th, 2013 : 9:19 AM

    “The folly of many traditional publishers is that their passive aggressive actions are only obscuring the real battle being fought: a world of writers forming direct pipelines to their readers, always listening to what their readers want and going out of their way to provide it.”

    I agree that some ebook conversion look like no one ever reviewed it for quality. That’s a given! But I don’t think writers going the self-publishing route are necessarily producing better-quality ebooks than traditional publishers. Just as there are writers providing excellent ebooks to their readers, so too there are in-house ebook developers at traditional publishers focusing on ebook conversion and quality.

    And just as there are writers using “meat-grinder” automatic ebook conversion tools, so too there are traditional publishers sending their ebook conversions overseas to low-cost outsourcers and never review their ebooks, ever.

    Also, as Richard suggests, part of the problem is developing designs for ereaders that 1) support different levels of markup and 2) prioritize functionality over design. As an ebook developer, there’s only so much I can do to make the same ebook render correctly from an old Kindle up through iBooks. There’s so much more wrong with the ebook industry than just poor ebooks conversions from traditional publishers.

  • Thad McIlroy

    Nov 20th, 2013 : 12:46 PM

    Colleen Cunningham @BookDesignGirl

    I didn’t mean to give the impression that self-publishers are necessarily producing better-quality ebooks than traditional publishers. What I admire most in the self-publishing community is its reinvention of the relationship between writers and readers, a powerful bit of magic that eludes the majority of traditional publishers.

  • bowerbird

    Nov 20th, 2013 : 10:38 AM


    your points are _spot-on_. really sharp.

    your graphics, however, are very weak,
    to the degree that they dilute your case.

    surely you coulda found a better example
    of poor e-book design than this one here.
    (merely bumping up the fontsize would’ve
    made the two look more similar than not.)

    besides, the larger issue is _not_ with the
    book-designers, who are merely doing the
    best job they possibly can with bad tools.

    the real issue is why their corporate offices
    felt it was necessary to band together (idpf)
    and create an infrastructure giving all of us
    — both readers and book-designers alike —
    such lousy tools and crappy experiences.

    and the answer, of course, is that they are
    trying to sabotage e-books, so that they can
    keep the old business-model on life-support,
    to squeeze the last dollars from paper-books.

    but, as you point out, it is the authors who’ll
    soon abandon these publishers which will be
    the force that brings down the old machinery.
    it’s inevitable, not something anyone can stop.

    now, if only the authors are smart enough to
    know that we must discard the infrastructure
    that was designed to be inferior for our needs.


  • Thad McIlroy

    Nov 20th, 2013 : 12:56 PM

    Thanks, bowerbird. You’re quite right that these samples are far from strong illustrations. I was trying to get examples off the current bestseller list to show that a problem that’s been with us for several years is far from being resolved. (My thought at the same time was that most people who will read this post will know exactly what I mean have read numerous blogs on the topic featuring numerous visual samples.)

    I don’t blame IDPF. I disagree that their tools are crappy. They’re complex, but there’s not much that can’t be done in EPUB 3 to present a very high quality online design.

    Also my main argument is not with the crappy designs per se. It’s how they represent an apparent disdain on behalf of the major players, which when coupled with high prices, arcane trade practices, lack of support for public libraries and more, suggests to me sabotage rather than merely stupidity and inexperience. They can do better. Why don’t they?

  • Sandilou

    Nov 20th, 2013 : 11:34 AM

    The price differentials aren’t great enough. Publishers screamed for years that costs were due to paper and shipping. Both of those have been removed from the the eBook model. Drop the prices further and more people will move to device readers.

  • Thad McIlroy

    Nov 20th, 2013 : 12:31 PM


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  • Joshua Tallent

    Nov 26th, 2013 : 5:46 PM

    Thad, I think your comments here are spot on. Many times eBook design is relegated to the end of the process, both with publishers and with self-published authors. Basics like font licensing are ignored until the time comes to make the eBook files, then the developer (assuming there is one) who has no authority and no time has to try to make it look good, sometimes with little or no knowledge of actual eBook design. Add device limitations into that mix and you have a recipe for failure on the goal of having eBooks that look as good as their print counterparts.

    Colleen’s point about outsourcing to low-cost vendors with little or no review cycle is also important. Many publishers are just not trying. They spend thousands on the print design but balk at the idea of spending more than $100 on eBook development. Calibre and other “meat grinder” tools promise the world and deliver junk that then makes the entire eBook market look haphazard.

    I do have to say that the device limitations are actually much better now than they were in 2008, and Kindle is no longer the problem child among the major reading systems. While it still has issues, KF8 supports many of the same design options you see in ePub files in iBooks, and it is no longer limited in basic design capabilities. Nook is the reading system we run into problems with most, as well as other devices that use the RMSDK display engine.

  • Thad McIlroy

    Nov 26th, 2013 : 7:13 PM

    @ Joshua Tallent
    If anyone has the right to comment on this topic it’s you: with a handful of others you’ve been at the forefront, advocating ebook design quality and bringing the problem to publishers’ attention through your numerous blog entries and public presentations. Your point that publishers “spend thousands on the print design but balk at the idea of spending more than $100 on eBook development” is spot on. That’s been my experience as well. Publishers can no longer pretend that there ain’t gold in them there eBook hills: the big 5 are now consistently selling eBooks near 30% of total, and their management issue public statements during earnings reports that treat this as vary positive news.

    So who are the moles in MI6 (sorry, I’ve been reading John Le Carre this week) that are somehow sabotaging the effort? And what will it take for them to, if not agree, at least stop undermining the effort?

    Thanks for writing.

  • Joshua Tallent

    Nov 27th, 2013 : 10:02 AM

    Thanks, Thad! I tend to think the main “moles in MI6” (love that!) are just the lack of understanding about what it actually takes to create good eBooks and the lack of planning that comes as a result. Try as we may to train people about the need for better quality and design planning in eBook development, there is a block of some kind that keeps the management in charge of making these decisions from seeing the efficacy of budgeting or planning for eBook development in advance.

    I tell publishers all the time to put me on speed dial and call me when they are in their acquisitions meetings tying to figure out what to do on the digital side with a new book, but I don’t think I have ever been taken up on that offer. We need to get to the place where eBooks are an integral part of the plan from the beginning.

  • Thad McIlroy

    Nov 27th, 2013 : 6:14 PM

    Agreed! But I’m getting weary of the “lack of understanding and planning” argument as it implies that it takes 5 or more years to teach a publisher a new trick. Based on my assessment of the ebook-composition-vendor capacity the publishers should have no trouble finding someone expert at the task. OK, so the ebook composition bill will be higher than the amount the production team spent at lunch deciding whether to “take the risk.” But to me it’s one of the clearest ROIs available in publishing today.