I think indie ebooks will account for 50% of ebook sales by 2020.
What do you think?
On one side of the debate, you have folks such as myself who believe all signs point toward indie ebook authors capturing an ever-greater percentage of the ebook market.
On the other side you have folks who think self publishing represents an insignificant portion of the book market. The naysayers think we indie optimists are delusional.
Could both sides be right? Yes, if you look at the numbers as they stand today, and no if you look at the trends.
When you look at the trends, a new picture emerges. Yes, I understand it can be dangerous to extrapolate trends. Any number of events can strike to disrupt or reverse a trend. But if you have confidence in the drivers of a trend, and you think the wind in the sails of these drivers will blow stronger not weaker, then the future becomes plain as day.
Today I'm contributing to the discussion by offering up a downloadable spreadsheet you can use to become your very own ebook pundit. Click here to download my spreadsheet at Dropbox.
You'll place your estimates in two rows: 1. In row 11, you'll estimate the percentage of trade book sales represented by print books (as you probably know, the term "trade book" refers to consumer books typically purchased through bookstores). 2. In row 13, you'll estimate the percentage of ebook market sales earned by indie ebook authors.
Enter your numbers for each year from 2008 to 2020.
From these two rows of estimates, the spreadsheet will calculate:
- The percentage of trade book market sales represented by ebooks
- The percentage of the overall trade book market represented by indie authors
- The percentage of the overall trade book market represented by traditional publishers
My estimates, and my pretty chart, are at the top of this post.
I'm estimating ebooks for 2013 represented 30% of the overall US trade book market, and print books accounted for 70%. Indie authors don't have access to print distribution for brick and mortars, so I've omitted any indie credit for print in my estimates.
I'm estimating indie authors represented 15% of the ebook market. Using these numbers, that means sales of self-published authors on the strength of ebooks alone accounted for 4.5% of the US trade book market for 2013. If my estimate is correct, it explains why publishers have maintained their intransigence when it comes to reforming their royalty rates and other business practices for which indies are now losing patience.
It's easy for a naysayer to poo-poo this 4.5% as evidence that despite all the noise about the indie revolution, traditional publishing is still the main game in town. Do these naysayers see the writing on the wall of where this is all leading?
There are some early signs publishers are beginning to feel the heat from self published authors, and it comes from Harlequin, the grand dame of romance publishing. In Harlequin's management discussion portion of its 2013 earnings announcement (released March 4, 2014), the company for first time cited self publishing as a potential competitive risk: "The proliferation of less expensive, and free, self-published works could negatively impact Harlequin’s revenues in the future." (hat tip Publishers Lunch). View the report here (opens a PDF).
I'm sure there will be those who criticize my 2013-2020 estimates for being wildly optimistic, or crazily conservative. Only time will tell. My primary concerns are the general trends, the drivers of these trends, and what these trends mean for the writers we serve.
As I look to the future, I think the numbers start looking really exciting if you're in the indie author's shoes, and scary if you're a Big 5 publisher. In my spreadsheet, I see indie authors accounting for 50% of ebook sales by the year 2020. I think my estimates are fairly conservative. Some people today think indie ebooks already account for 25% or more of ebook sales. I'm modeling a steady but gradual shift from print to ebooks, and a steady but gradual increase in the indie ebook market share.
If my projections come to pass, indie authors will control over one third (35%) of the overall trade book market in seven years. Go ahead, call me crazy or delusional. I don't mind.
Below, I'll explain why my numbers are more achievable than the naysayers think.
10 Reasons Indie Authors Will Capture Half of the Ebook Market by 2020
- Print will continue to decline as a book-reading format as more readers transition to screens. The transition to screens will be driven by the low prices, selection, exceptional discoverability and instant reading pleasure delivered by ebooks.
- Brick and mortar bookstores will continue their march into the sunset with more store closures. I'm not happy about this, but I don't see the trend reversing unless bookstores start serving wine and pot brownies in their cafes.
- The perceived value of publishers will decline in the eyes of writers as the importance of print distribution declines. Print distribution is an important glue that holds many writers to their traditional publishers. When publisher stickiness decreases, writers will be tempted to explore the indie author camp.
- Indie authors have learned to publish like professionals, which means self publishing will lead to more better books, and more diversity of better books. The professionalism and sophistication of indie authors has increased dramatically in the six years since we launched Smashwords, and this professionalism will increase in the future as indies pioneer tomorrow's best practices. These authors are publishing books that are quality-competitive with traditionally published books, but priced dramatically lower. As a result, these authors have the ability to under-price, outsell and out-compete the ebooks from traditional publishers. It means indie authors will have platform-building advantages over traditionally published authors.
- The number of self-published ebooks will explode, and these ebooks will continue to enjoy democratized access to professional publishing and distribution tools such as Smashwords, and democratized access to global online retail distribution (every major ebook store wants to carry self-published ebooks). Every author - even indie authors - will face increased competition from the glut of high quality works that never go out of print.
- The most successful indie authors are mentoring the next generation of authors. Indie authors act like a vast publishing collective of writers helping writers.
- The stigma once associated with self publishing is melting away at the same time the stigma of traditional publishing is on the rise. Indie authors are in the cool kids club now. They know they can publish with pride and professionalism, and they're developing teflon skin that deflects the once ego-bruising criticism levied by self publishing naysayers. If you haven't been to a writers conference lately, go to one. A few years ago, writers would leave conferences depressed in the knowledge that their dream agent only accepts one in 10,000 queries. Today, writers attend conferences and learn to self publish like a pro. They leave the conference upbeat in the knowledge that one way or another, they'll publish their book their way.
- Writers are discovering the joy of self publishing. If publishers are from Mars, authors are from Venus. They speak different languages and hold different values. The rewards of self publishing transcend the conventional and myopic commercial metric value systems of publishers. Indie authors are enjoying total creative control, faster time to market, ownership over their publishing future, and the flexibility to innovate and evolve their immortal ebooks which will never go out of print. Indie authors enjoy the freedom to serve their fans as they want to serve them. Icing on the indie author's cake: Indie ebook authors earn royalty rates 4-5 times higher than they'd earn from traditional publishers.
- Readers don't care about the publisher name on the ebook's virtual spine. The brand they care about is the author brand. Indie authors are learning to build their own brands.
- The growing rift between writers and publishers will cause the next generation of writers to avoid shopping their books to publishers, and will undermine the goodwill of writers who until now have been loyal to their traditional publishers. Writers are angry. After centuries of living on the bottom rung of the publishing ladder, they're feeling their oats and relishing their new-found power and respect. I wrote about this last week for Publishers Weekly in my opinion piece, Hugh Howey and the Indie Author Revolt (may require registration).
Have fun with your punditry! I look forward to hearing all views, especially if you don't agree with me.
READ NEXT: Read my follow-on to this post, Indie Ebook Author Community to Earn More than Traditional Ebook Authors