What You Heard, The E-Book Market Never Stopped Growing

Over the last year, we’ve been talking to writers like A.G. Riddle who have been making a more than comfortable living selling e-books directly to readers on Amazon. That’s why it’s always seemed a bit strange to see media accounts reporting on the shrinking market for e-books.

News outlets like The New York Times report that e-book sales continue to slip, which is true if the data only covers part of the market. Reports from the Association of American Publishers has data from 1,200 publishers. They are the largest publishers, but they are also losing market share.

E-book sales never declined, according to a presentation yesterday at Digital Book World in New York City. In fact, if anything, we don’t yet have an adequate way to estimate how much the market segment has grown.

In back-to-back presentations from from the data site Author Earnings and publishing tech firm Overdrive, it became clear that “unit sales” may not be the best way to measure the size of the book market. In more and more ways it’s becoming clear that there are additional ways for writers to earn money than by readers buying whole books or even buying books at all.

Author Earnings estimates that 485,538,000 e-book units were sold in 2016.

Author Earnings makes estimates of all the sales on Amazon. “There are 20,000 unique publishers who show up in that dataset,” Author Earnings’ anonymous Data Guy said during his presentation at the conference. Amazon guards its information carefully, but Author Earnings has been able to crawl the online retail giant’s author rankings and estimate both relative and total sales of books, both print and digital. It corroborates its estimates using real sales data privately shared with the site by large authors.

What’s the best way to listen to ebooks?

There are lots of answers to this question, but they may not work for your wife. The possibilities include good old-fashioned cassette tape recorders, specialised talking book readers such as the Victor Reader Stream, CD players, MP3 players, smartphones, tablets and PCs. You may need to use different technologies for different types of material.

Either way, remember that cassettes have been doing this job for decades, and there are thousands of tapes on eBay.co.uk. Prices vary, but you can often pick up cheap bundles for £1 per book, or less. CD audiobooks are not as common, but you may find some titles your wife would like.

In the future, I may have a two-word answer: Amazon Alexa. The longer version would be “a voice-recognition system with intelligent personal assistant software that can play audio on demand”. There are other AI-based PAs including Microsoft’s Cortana, Google Assistant and Apple’s Siri, but Alexa is already available on the Amazon Echo, which makes it instantly available for voice commands. Google has yet to launch its copycat product, Google Home, in the UK, but it’s expected in this year’s second quarter. Alexa will also appear on Amazon’s £39.99 Fire TV Stick on 6 April.

Alexa won’t work for your wife if she has “no speech”, but voice-driven AI systems like Alexa can not only answer questions and play audio, they can operate a lot of smart gadgets. They should make life easier for people who, for whatever reason, struggle with small screens, tiny buttons and incomprehensible user interfaces. That includes me.

Kindle talk

Text-to-speech (TTS) is a relatively old technology: Texas Instruments started making the speech synthesis chips used in its Speak & Spell toy in the 1970s. Amazon introduced text-to-speech in the Kindle 2, but it ran into objections from the Authors Guild. In a New York Times opinion piece, The Kindle Swindle?, the Guild’s president argued that ebook rights don’t include audio rights, and authors needed the extra cash.

Audible audiobooks

Audible Inc was one of the pioneers of digital audiobooks, and Amazon bought that company in 2008. Unfortunately, the UK’s Amazon Prime service doesn’t include a selection of Audible audio books alongside the free movies, but there is some hope: American Prime users now get free Audible Channels, for streaming only. Either way, it might be worth subscribing to Audible, which costs £7.99 per month after a free first month. Your wife might like its BBC Collection in particular.

Machine reading

A book read by someone who is good at reading aloud can be a wonderful experience. A book read by text-to-speech software may be unbearable, except in small doses. TTS is fine for some purposes, such as catching up with the news, but not so good for novels. Actor and gaming celebrity Wil Wheaton has demonstrated the difference.

There’s a plethora of TTS programs, and they are built into both Microsoft Windows and MacOS. There are also TTS apps for smartphones and tablets, including Voice Dream Reader for Apple and Android.

For more details, see my earlier answer, How to convert text documents into MP3 audio files. It’s a little old (2013), but the field hasn’t changed that much, apart from the rising popularity of Voice Dream Reader.

The main things to consider are the range of inputs that a TTS converter will accept – plain texts, Word documents, PDF files, various ebook formats etc – and whether there’s a voice that your wife likes.

My pick

Consider getting your wife one of the RNIB’s Daisy-compatible audiobook players with TTS built in. For example, the new Victor Reader Stream plays Audible books while also including Acapela’s TTS software, which can voice text files and ebooks in the ePub format. Further, it can play thousands of internet radio stations via your wireless network, and there’s a 32GB SD card slot for loading other types of material.

Because it’s designed for blind and visually impaired users, your wife may be able to operate it herself. That would give your wife more control, and reduce the strain on you.

How real books are fighting back

Technology rarely takes prisoners and it crushes – virtually – everything in its path. In the past 15 years technology has seen off almost all physical manifestations of music and film, replacing them with downloads and streaming services. Newspapers are endlessly under its cosh as its fake promise of endlessly free content lures people away from newsprint into a digital world of sometimes dubious merit. And it has mortally wounded countless bricks-and-mortar businesses and concepts we used to take for granted.
How many people go into travel agents any more? Does anyone even remember the speaking clock?
But there is one old school technology that is fighting back and, despite a few early setbacks when it seemed to be tilting at windmills, the book seems to be winning the war against the machine.

For hundreds of years books have been remarkably resilient at halting the advances of technology. While music was hopping like a Whirling Dervish from cylinders to vinyl to cassettes, to CDs, to mini-discs to ones and zeros stored on your computer’s hard drive and then on to something even more ephemeral in the form of streamed content, the book has stayed largely the same since Miguel de Cervantes first had a novel notion.

But it faced, perhaps, its greatest threat just over a decade ago when Amazon. com’s chief executive, Jeff Bezos, asked a simple question: “Can you improve upon something as highly evolved and well suited to its task as the book? And if so, how?”

Then he answered his own question or at least thought he did. For almost a decade after 2007 his Kindle – and other e-readers – were the shiny new things and many people (including Pricewatch, for the sake of full disclosure) presumed the technological advances heralded the end of the book as we have always known and loved it.

Boom trade

But the tide has turned again. Last year the book trade in Ireland was boomier than an Irish bank at the height of all that madness back in the day. The rise and rise of the printed book here is part of a global phenomenon. According to the most recent figures from Nielsen in the UK, more than 360 million books were sold there last year, 2 per cent higher than in 2015. There was a 4 per cent rise in sales in actual shops while ebook sales fell by 4 per cent, the second year in a row sales declined.

Nielsen put much of the bounce in print sales down to children’s fiction. Another reason the positions have been reversed is price. Amazon used to charge a lot less for its digital versions than it did for its printed ones but ebook prices have climbed in recent years and now often cost the same and, in some instances, more than physical copies.
US courts are at least partially to blame or thank as a couple of years back they gave publishers – and not Amazon – the right to set prices for ebooks. And publishers set them high.

While climbing prices are rarely good news for consumers, they just might be here. Certainly, the resurgence of the book is good news for everyone, or at least anyone who values the immense and invaluable work authors all over the world put in to their craft, all too often for far too little reward.