How the Pandemic Has Pushed Publishing Into Digital Formats Faster Than Planned
Note: I originally wrote this article for my annual changes in publishing post on Romancing the Genres that I’ve written every year for a decade. It published December 5, 2020. I’ve made some changes to that article, particularly in the introductory remarks and some additional comments on how authors and publishers might capitalize on these changes during 2021 and 2022.
2020 is behind us now, but we will feel its impacts for years to come. The question is embrace the future, or will we dig in our heels and try to return to the past–a belief that the past is “normal”? I know many authors and publishers haven’t liked the rush to ebooks. They haven’t liked the massive shift to virtual events. Authors in particular who loved seeing fans at a bookstore or conference and signing their print books and talking to them face-to-face have really struggled. All the traditional ways of reaching an audience seemed to be turned on its head. In fact, the publishing world had already become more digital pre-pandemic. However, the pandemic cut off of the “usual/old” ways of doing business and consuming books forced businesses to embrace the digital world or die.
I’ve heard from authors who have had their most successful year ever because of the pandemic.They’ve said it’s obvious with people stuck in their homes that they are reading more. I’ve also heard from authors who have had the worst year ever because of the pandemic. That group of authors attribute the falling sales to customer worry and economics looking so dour. When people don’t know if they will have a job, a home, or anything to keep them safe, they tend to be glued to the television news, or escape with movies and other entertainments. These authors believe that means people are reading less. How can they both be right?
Publishing Requires Understanding the Diversity of Book Buyers
Like everything in life and business, there is no one way to success. Genre, distribution, book formats (ebook, print book, audiobook, interactive book) are all factors in reaching different audiences with different desires. The one thing I know about publishing is that it has never been a business where you can do one thing the same and it works for everything you publish. Book marketing is a combination of building a recognizable brand of quality coupled with niche marketing of individual products to individual audiences.
If you are in the business of selling kitchen appliances you know that the buyer for a new gas range with a convection oven is different from the buyer looking for a small countertop microwave. Each of those buyers might eventually be interested in the two different products, but that would be at different times in their life. It is only when outfitting an entire new kitchen that a single buyer may want both. Also, where each buyer goes to look for that appliance might be different. Though both MAY look only at an appliance store. The microwave customer may first look at a big box store like Walmart or Best Buy. Both customers may also compare prices online once they’ve made a decision on brand and model, in order to get the best deal. Or each customer may have a favorite store where they always go because they trust the owner, the salesperson, the support.
It is the same with books. Even when the world around us is “normal, genre definitely has its ups and downs based on what is happening in the real world. A hit movie can spur many books along the lines of that hit. A bestselling novel tends to suddenly create lots of copycats, or publishers and authors seek to find something the same but a little different. When a customer feels unsteady, it is more likely that customer is going to go with brands they have counted on over the years. That may be a particular publisher known for quality books. It may be particular authors known for quality writing, telling a good store, entertaining them. When the rest of the world is humming along and people feel comfortable or moving toward success, they are more likely to take changes on the unknown–an unknown publisher, an unknown author, even a new genre.
Of course, price always plays a part in the sales of books. Both ends of the spectrum have their pros and cons. Making a book free or 99 cents can bring in readers who wouldn’t take a chance on an author new to them if the price was higher. On the other hand, many readers see a novel or a nonfiction book listed for 99 cents and immediately think there must be something wrong with it. Their experience has taught them that a lot of 99 cent books aren’t well written, or don’t provide comprehensive information. Even those readers who are willing to pay premium prices have a limit, and that limit is often related to genre expectations. Romance readers have come to expect lower prices because of the downward push on pricing that has happened over the past decade. The average romance ebook ranges from $3.99 to $5.99. Paying $7.99 and up is reserved only for those authors who have proven their worth over decades of good writing and marketing. On the other hand, the average thriller novel ranges from $4.99 to $7.99. This means a publisher, even a self-publisher, can easily start price new thriller book from an unknown author at $4.99 or $5.99 and sell assuming all the metrics of cover, writing, plot, blurb match expectations.
As I gathered my research for predicting changes in publishing for 2021, I realized that data on the impact of the pandemic is limited. Most of the reporting I could find reflected only through May. This is typical as statistical analysis is time consuming and relies on reporting from many entities. The best statistical analysis sites run 12 to 18 months behind in reporting because they are looking for long-term trends instead of a single quarter blip. Because we haven’t had this kind of pandemic for a century and comparing publishing statistics from 1920 to now would be ridiculous. But the data we do have is pretty remarkable. My predictions are based on a review of both 2019 data and early 2020 data that is available. The good news is that indie authors will likely receive the most rewards from the changes in publishing—moving primarily to digital media during the pandemic. How long that will last will depend on how, or if, traditional publishers will adapt their pricing and availability to compete better in the digital market.
As always there is more to report than page space. I’ve narrowed these impacts to four big changes: 1) the impact on book product/format types; 2) the rise in sales of subscription services across the board; 3) international sales expanding at a higher rate than U.S. sales; and 4) how artificial intelligence (AI) will continue to make a major difference in 2021 and beyond.
While millions of people have been limited to their homes and economies faced a major downturn, each person has been looking to kill boredom. For those who aren’t spending ten hours a day on social media, they had to turn to something else. For some that means streaming Netflix or Prime Video. For others it is listening to audio. For many it has been reading. Even though book readers may have preferred print in the past, they found it hard to come by with bookstores and libraries closed. Even Amazon’s delivery of print books was delayed for a few months when they put delivery of “essential products” first. In the case of bestselling books, people often waited more than a month to get the book delivered and many large publishers moved release dates for books to six or twelve months beyond their initial planned release.
Those who really wanted to read a lot, instead turned to ebooks and audiobooks that were easily downloaded to phones, tablets, and sometimes even desktop computers. I believe the pandemic has advanced the uptake of digital media by at least five years.
As of May 2020 the Association of American Publishers (AAP) reported revenues for hardbacks down 18.5%, and paperbacks down 16.9% on a year to date basis. On the bright side ebook and audiobook revenue was up. Ebooks up by 39.2%, and audiobooks up by 22%. Again, these were comparisons to the same period in 2019.
Audiobooks continue to be a double-digit revenue generator year over year. As of May 2020, audiobook sales were up 27% compared to the same time last year. Who are these audiobook listeners it seems that the majority of them (57%) are under the age of forty-five. Edison Research national survey of American audiobook listeners ages 18 and up all increased their listening in terms of the number of audiobooks. The most popular audiobook genres continue to be mystery/thriller/suspense.
A 2019 survey by Edison Research reported that half of all Americans over the age of 12 listened to an audio book in the past year. Fifty percent of the listeners were below the age of 45. The average number of audiobooks listened to in a year was eleven. That is higher than the average number of print books or ebooks read in the U.S. which was six and four respectively.
Libraries have also been a major part of ebook and audiobook purchases during the pandemic. As they closed their doors, many libraries changed their budgets to allow more digital download media to be purchased, and that meant decreasing the budget for print. Some very large systems were already undertaking a major overhaul of library space in light of more digital collections, now using the space for artisan showings and things other than books that could be borrowed—including a variety of recorders, power tools, museum or park passes, musical instruments, and many more.
Though many people my age (baby boomers) are reluctant to give up print, once they have downloaded three or four ebooks or audiobooks they are quickly hooked on the ease of access as well as the significantly reduced price (except for bestsellers). For myself, once I realized I could hold more than a thousand books in an e-reader that is less than the size of a single paperback, I was hooked. In addition, the younger generation—those under 40 years old—grew up in a digital world and the majority were never attached to print books. Do you remember the rise of Wattpad? A free writing and reading platform that used to be the indie bestseller creator? Most of that group is hitting 30 years old now. They learned to read online and have been among the major consumers of ebooks and audiobooks. Given the movement toward climate and resource conservation, I really don’t see print books remaining the bestselling format. Instead, I see print books become purchased for collections or for what readers often say are “keeper” books. That is not to say you shouldn’t invest in print, it is still a large part of the market. However, in terms of percentage of investment I’m focusing 70% on ebooks and audiobooks and only 30% on print.
Subscription Services Dominate Sales Worldwide
Subscription Services are on the rise, and have increased by double digits during the pandemic. All aggregators are reporting nearly 50% of all sales are to subscription services. This is both in ebooks and audiobooks. Bookwire reports that during the initial lockdown in Europe digital sales for ebook and audiobook subscriptions rose by 37%. How does this breakdown by subscription service?
- In terms of worldwide reach, ScribD is in 194 countries. Though they had a difficult start when Amazon challenged them with Kindle Unlimited only a year after startup, they stuck with it and hit one million subscribers at the beginning of 2019. They reported a 36% rise in the first half of 2020.
- Amazon’s KDP Select for authors (Kindle Unlimited for readers) is still the largest membership at an estimated 10 million subscribers in the eleven countries it serves. They are certainly the dominant subscriber service in the U.S. and the U.K. However, major publishers have mostly refused to sign up their front list, and most everywhere else in the world they far outpace Amazon KU subscriptions in those countries. In addition, authors are forced to choose between exclusivity to participate in KU vs going with many other subscription services that have no exclusivity. Already many authors who used to be KU exclusive have been pulling out books and going wide.
- In 2017 Kobo introduced the Kobo Plus Subscription model in Belgium and the Netherlands as a pilot. They were primarily concerned about piracy and tracking. It did so well they launched in Canada at the beginning of 2019 and launched in France in 2020. With a membership of approx. 170,000 they are not in the range of other subscription services. However, given their worldwide reach in retail bookshops, it is possible they will grow more quickly over the next few years.
- Sweden’s Storytel hit 1 million subscribers in June 2019. In the first half of 2020 they reported subscriber growth of 38% and streaming revenue growth of 45%. They were also able to raise over $96 million dollars in new funding, showing a strong vote of confidence in the unlimited subscription model. They are the major subscription service in 16 countries: Bulgaria, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, India, Italy, Mexico, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Russia, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and Singapore. Along with ScribD it is their purpose to become larger than Kindle Unlimited for the rest of the world outside North America. They have 40 additional countries on the radar and may use recent fundraising to accomplish that quickly.
In short, though the U.S. has not yet embraced subscription services, this is a huge opportunity for indie publishers—particular those looking to grow their market share. It is true that the royalties per unit are less (based on how far readers read in the book), but the discoverability is very high with more people trying your books and, if they like it, reading the whole thing which then generates the usual royalty for a purchase. ScribD is still a full royalty pay when the full book is read. Whereas Amazon KU averages about 30% of unit sales royalties when the full book is read. Furthermore, no one except Amazon requires exclusivity.
International Sales Increase at a Faster Rate Than U.S. Sales
I think most American’s tend to really think U.S. centric in terms of sales and readers. Interestingly, U.S. readers are not nearly in the top percentile of daily book reading habits in the world. Many other countries far surpass the U.S. in terms of hours spent reading per week, per person, as this graphic from Statista shows in 2017. In the top 30, the USA stands at number 23. Authors may look at how to reach some of these author places internationally where reading is much more the norm.
For a larger graphic with more details go to the Global English Editing World Reading Habits which takes several Statista reports and breaks it down into more details. Including which were the most popular books read in various countries.
Though the U.S. began at the leading edge of ebook technology and people regularly online, we are no longer in the lead in terms of innovation and certainly not the lead in terms of the number of people online. Partly that is due to simple population numbers, but also the per capita number of readers in other countries are a lot higher than in the U.S.
One book-centric expert on this is Mark Williams, Editor in Chief of The New Publishing Standard (TNPS) which focuses on the Worldwide Market in print and ebook.
“Today there are just shy of 4.7 billion people online, many in places you’d least expect. The USA is not the biggest. In fact, it comes in at only third place, behind China (854 million internet users) and India with 560 million people online. The USA has 312 million online and no room to grow.” –Mark Williams
I’ve heard some people say, “Sure they have internet but that doesn’t mean they are readers or spend money purchasing books.” The world’s biggest book fairs prove this wrong. In Egypt. 3.5 million people attended their Bookfair this year. The Algeria, Iran, Sharjah (UAE) and Kolkata (India) International Book Fairs each attracted over 2 million visitors in 2019. The Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), Baghdad (Iraq), Buenos Aries (Argentina), Bangkok (Thailand), Havana (Cuba), Colombo (Sri Lanka), New Delhi (India), Muscat (Oman), Hyderabad (India) and numerous other international book fairs each attracted over 1 million visitors in 2019.
Let’s compare that to the U.S. largest book fair, the New York Book Expo. Attendance in 2019 was approximately 20,000 people. Slow to move to the virtual platform they changed dates of the expo three times 2020 and then cancelled altogether, setting a spring 2021 date. At this writing, I suspect that may be change that date again as it is unlikely we will have vaccinated enough people to allow for a gathering of 20,000 in New York.
On the other hand, the UK’s 10-day Hay Festival from Wales quickly pivoted from in-person to online in April-May, drawing an online crowd in excess of 500,000 proving that literary events can be just a mouse click away. Also Big Bad Wolf pivoted from in-person events in 12 countries to online events with millions of books sold at each. Big Bad Wolf sells English-language books to Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, The Philippines, Cambodia, South Korea, the United Arab Emirates, Pakistan, Myanmar, Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia. The final online event was in November in Malaysia, their home country. Its four-day online sale extended to eight days because of the online traffic. They started with 1.5 million buyers online.
How important are international sales? Consider that Penguin Random House opened an exclusive ebook store on Amazon in order to reach India’s 500 million internet users.
“We are witness to, and participants in, a digitally-driven, global renaissance quite unprecedented in human history. Don’t let it pass you by while you obsess over one company and one or two markets.” –Mark Williams, The New Publishing Standard.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) Continues to Scale, Lowering Production Costs for Everyone
Last year I talked a bit about AI inroads to publishing. There are many ways AI is being used regularly already. Some of these we may take for granted, not realizing it uses some type of AI.
Research: Publishing, especially in academia, involves tremendous amounts of research. Databases going online, journals online have cut this down over the past three decades. AI helps with this process by going through huge amounts of data in a matter of seconds and providing valuable results based on author, journal, keywords, phrases.
Finding your target audience: Crafting your content to appeal to your target audience will take your published work to the next level. In addition to the help of SEO tools now available to indie authors (e.g., Yoast SEO for WordPress sites), there are other AI-enabled tools that try to predict the behavior of your intended audience. This is especially true in advertising platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Google when you select targeted audiences. It is also available to individuals through tools like Publisher Rocket which does comparisons of competitor books, authors, sales, keywords, and categories. There is still more development in this area but the predictive abilities are much more robust than even three years ago.
Automating routine tasks: Publishers and distributors regularly use AI to detect false or plagiarized content, recognize statistical errors, identify repetitive-sounding texts, fact-check key areas of published work and a lot more. These tasks traditionally require a lot of manpower. Combined with the data mining, this task alone lets authors publish larger amounts of data.
Editing Text: Proofreading and formatting has long been available in a variety of software applications that indie authors can use. Even within formatting software, like Vellum, there is proofreading based on spelling and grammar. These tools allow you to fix errors in grammar and context. In the case of formatting, software provides specific style guides that ensure there is a consistent look and feel throughout a book. .
All of the above is already available, and has been available with software programs developed using AI tools. They will continue to get better as the tools learn. But the biggest development I’m following and am really excited about is the continued AI translations of text. Already, Google has an app for phones that can translate conversations in real time. If I encounter a Spanish speaking person, I can ask the app to translate spoken words to English and it will do it nearly simultaneously. It won’t be perfect but it will be understandable. This reminds me of Star Trek translators from the 1960s finally coming to fruition.
Translating Books with AI
Of course, translating books is a more difficult step. In spoken language you can get away with small mistakes because the other person isn’t expecting perfection and makes sense of your speaking from body language and gestures. However, books are the ultimate form of language nuance and context. In addition, the role of “voice” is critical. That means the translation is much more exacting.
Currently, there are a variety of highly respected AI translation tools available to the nonfiction market that are used regularly by large businesses (e.g., legal, medical, and translation for general sales). AI has become 90% or more accurate for these market segments. In general, translation of nonfiction, particularly technical or expert-based nonfiction, is quite good. It tends to be more formal and uses terms that have already been translated thousands of times in journals or scientific publications.
Where AI still needs more development is in learning the nuances of language that are so embedded in good fiction or narrative nonfiction. For example, the use of pronouns, possessives, and personal plurals are all problematic in many languages. That is because of the relationship of people and the formal or informal language used within the story or nonfiction is different than it is in English. Where we may have one word, like “you,” other languages change that word based on the relationship of the speaker to the reader or a character in a fiction book. Then, of course, there are the difficulties of fiction language—particularly metaphor and simile, as well as idioms in humor. I am not a multi-linguist, but those who may be fluent in another language might look at these four examples of translation of the first part of an English SF novel translated to German, French, Spanish, and Japanese in less than a minute. This was using Google Translate which is not the best option for full length books, but it gives an indication of how far translation and context as come.
I’ve written a blog about this recently, Lost in Translation: A look at the viability of AI translation. The article describes in greater detail how AI works for translation and where authors can capitalize on it, as well as the important role of a human translator and/or editor.
In terms of indie author accessibility to AI translation, there are two that are affordable. One is DeepL ($9/month for up to 5 books/month). You can load the entire book at once and get back the entire translation within a minute. They have most of the world languages available. The best part is that it will retain all the formatting in terms of chapters and spacing, paragraphs and pagination.
The other is Google Translate online (free). You can copy and paste up to 5,000 characters, including spaces (about 600 words) at a time. Not only is this very time consuming, but you have to then copy the translation and paste it into a new document making sure the chapters and spacing are all done correctly. It appeared to me that the more words I copied and pasted, the less accurate it became as there was no relationship to the previous words to learn the context. For me, using Google Translate is not a viable option for longer works.
I don’t think that AI translation will ever equal human translators. However, I do believe that we are close now, and in three more years it will be even better. I do think it is at the point where I can get a solid draft that can then be edited by a human translator. The good news is that cuts costs in half. Instead of the typical $5,000 for a 75K word book, translation editing costs between 30% and 50% ($1,500 to $2,500) depending on the language, the country, and the individual editor.
Based on These Publishing Changes What Might Your 2021 Prep List Look Like?
- Make sure your website is the best it can be. Take advantage of SEO software to increase discoverability as much as possible.
- Freshen your online book descriptions and your author bio everywhere you can, taking advantage of keywords, categories, snippet descriptions and the like.
- Check your email signature and clean out your inbox.
- Consolidate to-do lists. Do the things you’ve been putting off (software updates, saving things to backups, security checks), especially the digital maintenance work that, if things go bad, could really impede your ability to promote a book or even exist in the digital world of discoverability and sales.
- If you aren’t already, consider expanding your international reach through aggregators and subscription services.
- Begin thinking about translation and if it makes sense to you. You might begin small, with a short story, a novelette or novella and see how it plays. If you want to know where to start, consider German, Italian, Spanish, and French in that order. Though Japanese and Chinese have huge populations, the formatting of a book in those languages (because of the non-latin characters) can be problematic for ebooks. Some vendors require the EPUB3 format instead of the EPUB2 format that most publishers are still using today.