Stories are nothing new to our world. The thousands of years of our evolution are packed with them, whether factual recollections of history or dangerous voyages across fictitious lands. However, the format of these narratives has evolved alongside the narratives themselves. No longer are we carrying around clay tablets for leisure. We advanced from clay tablets to parchment to paper prints then to electronic and audible formats. Paper books have proven to be the most popular among readers, but alternative formats have gained market share as reading habits have changed and our phones, with screens like dinner plates, rule our lives.
The dawn of the Kindle was a turning point in the delivery of books. One could hold an entire library in one’s hands on a screen. Hours after the Kindle was released, it was sold out on Amazon. Publishers noticed as paper book sales took a hit. Statista reports that after the Kindle’s release in 2008, the sales on paperback decreased by 187 million units. Digital sales from that point on have only increased. Digital media will continue to grow.
When Kindle launched, Amazon went to publishers and offered to sell their backlist titles at bulk price. Intrigued by the promising profits, the publishing companies agreed. “They kind of sold the family farm to Amazon in that process,” says Mark Gottlieb, a literary agent at Trident Media. “Suddenly Amazon had huge market share. They could get people a cheaper edition of a book, they could get them that kind of book instantaneously.” He notes that the ultimate price being paid was to book publishers’ bottom line. Publishers would be releasing their new titles at the same time as Amazon released the digital versions, and then marketing it at a lower price. After the decline of sales, publishers realized that Amazon had been creating their own prices to increase their market share. It took some time for the industry to adjust their strategy, releasing different formats incrementally rather than all at once and praying that readers would prefer a twenty-five-dollar hardcover over a four-dollar digital copy.
Audible, Amazon’s audio unit, did not have this sort of effect. In the most recent release of data, the Association of American Publishers reported audio accounts for only 7 percent of overall trade revenue. Yes, audiobooks are gradually increasing in sales (goodereader.com reported that audiobook sales increased by 16 percent in the United States in 2019), but they are not yet affecting sales of the other formats.
This battle of the formats all came to a halt with the introduction of a new foe: the coronavirus pandemic. With all the time at home and the swell of anxiety, people turned to reading to pass the time. However, accessibility became a problem. Libraries and bookstores of all sizes were forced to close down. Independent brick-and-mortar stores took the brunt of the closures, and a few shut down indefinitely. Readers were forced to surf online. Even Amazon faltered, with a decrease in paper book sales. They were prioritizing essential products and steering customer attention away from things like physical books, leaving readers to turn to ebooks. According to goodereader.com, digital sales jumped by 12 percent in 2020.
It is said that 2020 was the worst year to publish a book for those involved in the process, such as editors and publishers. “In 2020, we received a lot of manuscript submissions, so I know people were definitely writing,” says Diane Goettel, the executive editor of Black Lawrence Press. Publishing takes years and one cannot see far enough into the future to prepare for a global pandemic.
“Every publisher plans to publish a book twelve to eighteen months from the date in the assigned contract,” says Gottlieb. Yet even with such a staggering moment in time, the book market is expected to recover. The industry reported a 9 percent rise in sales in 2020. The demand for books in all forms will be high this holiday season, but the emergence of coronavirus variants may drive more readers to digital books. The battle of the formats will continue in the future.
Stefania Calafiore is a Staff Writer for the Blue Muse Magazine
Header Photo Credit: Thought Catalogue via Unsplash