Friday, 16 August 2013

eBooks aren't zero sum, but they might as well be.

"Books are not zero sum gain."
"Readers don't just buy one book."

Time and again, I see arguments that authors aren't competing at all. This is both partially true, and totally false.

Year to year, the total spend on books is pretty predictable. Readers have a finite limit to their consumption. Even a prolific reader might get through 250 books a year. Judging by the '100 books in 2013' challenge on Goodreads, the average GR reader manages much less... and GR users are well above average in their consumption of books.

The logical follow on from that is obvious. If a reader has a ceiling on how many books they can read (derived from either time or money) then books have to compete in order to sell.

If a reader has £x to spend, they'll look for a value proposition. They want the most quality they can get for limited funds. With the advent of the era of free eBooks, this reader has much more choice than they did a few years ago.

If a reader has x amount of time, they want quality. That means well written, well edited books which hold their attention. Taste comes into play here - I like holiday thrillers. Others like books with spiritual meaning. Still more like romances.

So, if I want a new book, what process do I go through? I might look at my budget. I'm now so used to 'indie' prices that anything over £2.99 just looks expensive. Anecdotal evidence says I'm not the only one that feels this way. The UK charts are littered with bargains - aided and abetted by bargain book finds from Flurries of Words, KUForum and HUKD.

I may look for freebies. I now have 29,800 free eBooks on Amazon. Every single one is from a tweet I've seen in my twitter feed. I get through a book every couple of weeks if I'm lucky. Lets round that up and say it's 50 a year... That means I have 596 years of reading material.

So why do I still buy more eBooks? In part, the natural tendency to hoard. But really because there are books I want to read. Some are series (In Her Name by Michael Hicks is a great sci-fi serial that will make you want the rest of the story). Others just look interesting. The new Kathy Reichs is out this week - I'll probably read that before attempting to cut down my huge TBR pile.

The competition is therefore two-fold:

1. To be bought
2. To be read

Being bought is easy... if you price yourself at free. Getting read requires some sort of hook, and readers don't spend long deciding. If there's a big question asked in the first 200 words of a novel, the chances are you'll pique the curiosity of some readers enough to sell books. Even great literature, like P D James, isn't necessarily going to pass the 'Do I care what happens?' test after a few pages... and with so much literature available, readers don't need to put in the time. They can get instant gratification with a book that does grab them on page 1.

The next thing for those planning a career selling eBooks is this:

The average spend on eBooks year on year is roughly static after adjusting for inflation.

The number of titles available in eBook format is growing rapidly.

See the mismatch here? If the total spend (a pie if you will) is being cut up between more books (slices of pie) then each share (or slice) is getting smaller. New markets in Kindle are offsetting this somewhat for now, but eventually the eBook will be a worldwide thing, and then what?

Will each book earn less on average? I think so.

I also think we'll see (even) more binary results. Money will be spent on visible titles. With a deluge of millions of books online, it's the squeaky wheel that gets the grease.  Right now, about 10% of books get 90% of the money. I think that'll shrink to <1%. The total absolute number of titles that get visibility will be determined by bestseller lists, review sites etc. That space isn't growing as fast as the number of books that are there to fill it.
Prolific authors with large digital footprints, and corresponding mailing lists & social media followers will benefit. Single title authors are going to face even more of an uphill struggle.

There's only so much time, money and attention to go around. What's your long term strategy to keep eyeballs on your work?

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