5 Key Takeaways for Authors From Digital Book World

Last week, on the heels of the Writer’s Digest Conference, more than 1,000 publishing professionals gathered for Digital Book World to discuss the challenges of transitioning a very traditional business into the digital age.

While I didn’t attend the show this year (had to teach!), I’ve read a considerable number of live blogs and write-ups. Here are a few takeaways that I found especially important for writers & authors.

1. For major publishers, e-books will be 50% of unit sales (but not necessarily revenue) no later than 2015. What’s driving growth? The decreasing price of e-readers, the popularity of tablets, the launch of Google Books, and—in general—the increasing number of ways to read and acquire e-books across a variety of platforms.

2. Publishers are being challenged to show their value. “Publishers are going to have to prove they’re better at marketing and publicity than the authors themselves,” said Simon Lipskar, an agent with Writers House.

Furthermore, with initiatives like Kindle Singles—where organizations like the New York Times or TED are partnering with Amazon to release timely e-originals that in the past would’ve been done as quick print books—there will be even greater competition for traditional publishers.

3. Agents have to think of themselves as not just dealmakers, but as orchestrators of talent and careers. Given how many potential ways content can be produced and distributed now, a good agent doesn’t just sell a print book, then move on. They’re thinking about which medium is most appropriate for a first release, and the timing and pricing of other mediums. They’re exploring all multimedia options and opportunities, and making things happen outside the traditional models.

Also, an interesting highlight from Teleread’s report: Steve Ross of Abrams Artists said that with fewer titles being published, and so many publishing professionals out of work, he decided to set up a consulting service for self-published authors, and within 10 days had more clients than he could handle.

4. Bricks-and-mortar bookstores will continue to decline—which puts further pressure, as noted above, on commercial publishers to show their value to an author beyond distribution.
Mike Shatzkin boldly predicted: “We’re looking for a reduction in shelf space of 50% in the next five years, 90% in the next ten years.”

I didn’t see or hear anyone else being as aggressive in their predictions as Shatzkin, but there was agreement there would be some decline.

One caveat: the e-book industry growth is primarily driven by Big Six publishers, rather than independent publishers. National Book Network president Rich Freese, whose company distributes 200 independent publishers, said: “Ebooks aren’t even 5% of our sales, and they won’t be 50% in two years.”

However, the biggest fiction authors are already at 50% digital; other bestselling authors are at 20%.

5. The YA market is not (yet) driven by e-books. Bowker’s Kelly Gallagher offered results from the latest BISG/Bowker poll, which showed that only 5-6% of the YA market is reading e-books.

Best sources to read more in-depth:

And, of course, you’ll find continuing coverage of all these issues at Digital Book World’s excellent site, rich with content.

For those of you who attended Digital Book World, or were closely following Twitter and other reports: What were your key takeaways? Would love for you to share in the comments!

LATE UPDATE: Michael Hyatt, CEO of Thomas Nelson, has a wonderfully insightful post where he contradicts the finding of 50% e-books by 2015.

I think his most powerful point is that even the music industry hasn’t reached 50% digital sales yet!

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6 thoughts on “5 Key Takeaways for Authors From Digital Book World

  1. Jane Friedman

    @Raquel – Movie sales? Right now, Netflix members are already watching more TV episodes and movies streamed instantly over the Internet than on DVD. A lot of buzz right now for Amazon Prime, which might launch a competing streaming video service. [Blockbuster is over.]

    @Bob – Did you know the biggest growth area in music sales right now is … vinyl?

  2. Bob Mayer

    Sony, one of the largest music distributors, doesn’t even make CDs any more. I read Hyatt’s blog and it’s wrong already. I wish people in publishing, trying to protect their jobs, would stop juking the stats, as they say on The Wire. Every author I know, says their June 2010 royalty statements indicate 40-60% eBook sales. This is across a variety of genres and releases– hardcover, mass market, trade paperback. I don’t think that went down for end of year 2010 statements. Amazon now sells more eBooks than print. Borders is going down. A large print distributor in Canada just went bankrupt.

    Let’s get real. Both Thomas Nelson and Writers Digest have now partnered with Author Solutions to become vanity publishers and make money off writers. That’s as big an indicator of how much trouble the "in-between" people are in as anything. By that I mean authors produce the product, readers consume the product. Everyone else is in-between. And scared. My motto from my Infantry days is Lead, Follow, or Get The Hell Out Of The Way.

    I agree that publishers will have to show their value. Teaming with Author Solutions isn’t a solution. It’s a sign of desperation.

    Agents are already walking the line between trying to sell traditionally and becoming publishers, particularly of backlist for their authors. Inherent conflict of interest that’s not going away.

    I’ll be bolder than Shatzkin and say by the end of this year, 2011, people will finally admit that eBook sales are over 50% of the market.

    Hell, the NY Times, finally publishing an ebook bestseller list this Sunday, is as clueless as everyone else. Look at the numbers for Susan Wiggs.

    Music was a 12 billion dollar a year business in 2000. The industry experts ignored Napster and digital too long. It’s a 6 billion dollar a year business now. Oops. That’s only for the in-between people. The artists are thriving on their own. If they have great content and are willing to work at promoting. That is the future publishing for authors. At Who Dares Wins Publishing we just accepted the future by cutting our pricing for fiction ebooks 50%. Which still nets us more per book than mass market paperback from a traditional publisher.

    The true industry experts in publishing are writers and readers, not the people who have an outdated business model focused on selling to retailers, rather than readers, and whose retailer outlet has changed dramatically.

    Write It Forward!

  3. Raquel Byrnes

    Great information, Jane. I read Michael Hyatt’s post and he had some startling insights. With all the buzz recently, I thought digital sales were a higher percentage of overall book sales.

    I wonder what the numbers are for movie sales online versus a video store. Are we all moving towards selling primarily in big box stores and online?

    Thanks for all of the links.

  4. Drew Patrick Smith

    Excellent write up, Jane, and I agree with pretty much all of your points. I think for me, as a writer and editor, I do have to ask myself, just what am I getting from a publisher and an agent? Are they worth the money they get from the sales of my book?

    In the end, I think it’s these sort of questions that could turn the tides towards more and more self-publishing. Authors have already figured out how to make good books online all by themselves and they get to keep a lot more of their money. It’s really a no-brainer – especially once the feeling that they must have a physical book diminishes as digital books become more and more commonplace.

    More thoughts on the website.

  5. Steven M Moore

    Hi Jane! This is an excellent summary–very enlightening.
    One comment: I agree with Mike Shatzkin, maybe not on the exact numbers, but certainly on the spirit of the comment. That commercial space dedicated to bookshelves must be very expensive, especially considering that bookstores are located in high traffic shopping areas. I’ve noticed even in the large B&N stores subtle changes in display techniques and seating areas to maximize the number of books on display and the flow of clients through the store. Moreover, I’ve seen a steady decline in clients. With the browsing techniques available on-line even at Amazon (the ability to read excerpts), and on-line reviews, people can shop for their favorite authors right at their computer and even find new ones. Right now this take-off of on-line sales has little to do with eBooks either.
    Comment two: I see a numbers problem with the marketing whether the individual author or agent/publisher does the task–thanks to POD and eBooks, we are democratizing the process of writing a book. A NY Times article stated the results of a poll where a large percentage of American adults said that they felt they had a book in them. While this hasn’t completely translated into new books yet, there are certainly a lot more books out there. I have reviewed quite a few really excellent new books from relatively unknown authors like myself (and a few not so good, of course). The marketing conundrum is to enable those good authors, when there are so many of them, to reach their audience. It’s reader’s world, not necessarily a writer’s.

  6. Porter Anderson

    Excellent distillation, Jane.

    These points signal what I believe the leading edge of the discussion for authors now becomes: we’re simply "beyond the book" (already!) and we writers need to explore development options and distribution potentials to conceptualize our projects fully. Defining and serving our readership markets can depend on finding the right agents whose perspectives are up-to-date and ready to run with the hurly-burly of technology as well as creativity.

    For my money, your WDC11 sessions, like Dan Blank’s (@WeGrowMedia) and Guy Gonzalez’s (@DigiBookWorld) were among the strongest at the conference, getting at publishing options, platforming, transmedia, and industry directions we need to follow.

    I’ll second your nod to DigitalBookWorld.com, a sister outfit to Writer’s Digest headed by Guy. Writers can join DBW, as well as WD, and I’ve found my DBW membership to be really helpful in getting my head around what key industry players are debating.

    Thanks for the good focus in this post!