Sunday, 13 January 2013

What's Going on with E-books and Readers?

How are people going to read their books in the future? What's the way ahead? Somebody tell me so I can lay my handkerchief across a puddle in the path with one hand and humbly reveal my growing list of titles with the other. If you're a reader then please join my mail list and I'll drop you my newsletter when the hankie is going down. If you're an author then read on about why you should pause to consider the future.

I'm not a big-selling name in the writing world (around 20,000 copies out there, many of them given for free). My offerings are pickled eggs in the sweet and savoury spread of global literary offerings. If I could magic up a sweet romance or a savoury thriller then a few more appetites might be whetted. However, a good book in a popular genre isn't any guarantee of success. As well as all the trimmings (eye-catching cover, killer blurb), broad exposure to readers is required plus a truck load of good luck. Crossing your fingers, positive thinking, the power of prayer, dancing naked, magic rituals or a combination might be the answer to the luck component (with no disrespect intended to any practitioners), but how can independent authors get exposure?

The answer in 2012 was Amazon. Join KDP Select, give away a pile of e-books and ride the wave of follow-on sales. Variations on this approach included releasing new titles at brief intervals to keep something in the hot new releases listing, serialising novels to create more income, and amalgamating existing titles into box sets. But in the middle of the year things started to falter. Big-selling indie authors began to voice their concerns about a discontinuity in their sales volumes. Coincidentally this hiccup occurred around the time Amazon started to expand their Kindle offering to the big new markets of India, Japan, Brazil and Canada. Things fell off, or half way down, a cliff for most everyone. Some big sellers remained an exception and some small sellers (yours truly) continued to see a small but steady monthly increase in new readers.

So what happened? The indie author community cried foul and many theories were expounded. Amazon had adjusted their algorithms to the disadvantage of indie authors. KDP Select had conditioned readers to expect every book to go free at some point or other. Mainstream publishers had entered the fray with big name authors at prices a fraction of the KDP 99c minimum. Maybe the Kindle owners were saturated? Maybe sales of Kindle readers had slowed? Whatever the truth (and it's probably a complex cocktail), what did happen was Amazon started to have spasmodic sales reporting problems. Some authors began to distrust the accuracy of reports and even called for a sales audit. Others spoke of the bubble bursting.

Whatever the reasons for changing fortunes of many independent authors on Amazon, the key thing I want the crystal ball to tell me remains this: where and how are readers going to read books in the future?


Smashwords has been the alternative distribution channel hub during the growth of Amazon Kindle. It provides access to the e-book stores of the other main e-reading platform manufacturers - Apple, Barnes & Noble (Nook), Sony and Kobo. Smashwords is, to an extent, under siege as these channels begin to open their direct entry doors to authors. US-based authors have been able to go direct with B&N's pubit! for a while and the door is opening soon to UK-based authors too. Kobo have enabled direct access via writinglife since autumn 2012. Apple allow authors to upload and sell via iBooks, with some technological constraints. But why would an independent author want to go through all the trouble of uploading and maintaining content with multiple sites? Some won't but others will. Control, that's why. Direct control of product description, genre category, document revisions etc. Also, and some might think most importantly, access to real time sales data reporting. At the time of writing this post Smashwords have just updated sales data for some of their channels dating back before Christmas and Kobo is still stuck on November 2012 for non-free and August 2012 for free titles. Smashwords authors have had to blunder through the festive season with the marketing blinkers on.

I'm going to throw another word into the pot here: Android. I've been using basic Nokia and the occasional Blackberry phone for the last decade. I had a brief dalliance with a Samsung Windows phone and then ended up with iPhone, which is great. All those apps - I can finally access iTunes etc and also have the e-book apps for Kindle, Nook and Kobo. In fact I read Kindle books on my iPhone as often as I do on my good old Kindle 4. Then, this Christmas just past, my 11 year old daughter wanted a new phone as her present. A Samsung Galaxy. I spent some time setting up the phone and had my first Android experience, uploading some free apps. It set me thinking.

The a-ha moment for me was when I decided Santa would go source a couple of low cost tablets for the kids. Kilkenny, the marble city, has just 20,000 inhabitants (but two cathedrals and a royal charter, so it's a city) and a handful of electrical stores. The two major chain stores had a new, low cost Android tablet for sale. I took a look and tried to buy two of them. 

The sales guy said a lot of stuff I didn't understand about ice cream sandwiches and jelly beans, then added, "We don't have them in stock but a shipment of 600 is coming in on Monday, 300 of which are already reserved."
I got the tablets and I think every other kid in town also woke up to one too.
Okay, so I'm probably the last person on the planet to use a tablet and get to grips with Android, but I found out a couple of key things:
- Google Play is the default source of apps and has a similar offering to the iStore

- iTunes isn't available for Android so Apple have drawn a line in the sand there
- an 11 year old girl will start asking to read e-books on her Android phone and Android tablet within days of opening the box. She now has access to all my Kindle and Kobo books (parental control required!) on Android tablet and smartphone.

Here's the biggie. Google Play, the internet's high street store for Android apps, is selling e-books (except not in Ireland, yet, but never mind about that fly in my ointment!) Indie authors can upload their e-books direct to the Google Play store. Here's the even bigger biggie. Android tablets accounted for 41% of all tablets shipped globally in Q3 2012, versus 57% for Apple. The trend is up for Android, down for Apple. But there's more. Android accounted for 75% of all smartphones shipped globally in Q2 2012 versus 14.9% for Apple. The trend is up for Android.

So, how are people going to read their e-books in the future?


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16 comments:

  1. Great comment, Ruby and food for thought.

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    1. Thanks Prue and good to see you here :-)

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  2. My Kindle has just died on me and while, if Amazon replace for free, I'll stick with a Kindle, if I'm forced to buy a new device it won't be from Amazon.

    The Android tablet stats you cite are hugely significant and, outside of the US ebook market, Google is the one to watch for indies wanting to keep ahead of the game.

    The anecdotal observations about indies on Amazon tell their own story, and it seems indies putting all their eggs in the Amazon basket this year are going to be sorely disappointed.

    Not only is Amazon seemingly far less indie-friendly, but its market share continue to plummet (from 90% a year or two ago to barely 50% now) and indies are missing out on huge opportunities for sales in the English-speaking market worldwide.

    And I don't just mean Kobo, Apple and B&N. There are myriad smaller ebook stores out there which collectively make a big difference to yurt exposure and thereby your sales.

    The Kindle Select Christmas pot of 1.5 million may seem to some like a generous gift from Amazon to indie authors (though in reality all but the lucky few will see no benefit), but an alternative view it is a desperate measure to keep indies off rival platforms and helping them increase their market share at Amazon's expense.

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    1. Hi Mark. My thoughts are the same, although my Kindle is doing okat at the moment. For the same price I can get a budget tablet that will let me read Kindle or other ebooks, even let me do word processing with a little plug-in keyboard.
      Google Play is a pain to upload to at the moment. If they're smart they'll capitalise upon the opportunity and make it more author friendly but a bit of quality control on content would be optimal.
      Cheers, Ruby

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  3. Some very interesting info here, Ruby. Thanks for sharing.

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    1. Thanks, Gerry! It's amazing how things have moved on since the old times of Authonomy, isn't it?

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  4. The two major chain [electrical] stores. Give us a clue: are these stores selling computers - or TVs? (I love ice cream sandwiches and jelly beans). And what the heck is a tablet? Isn't this just another name for an eReader?

    Confused of Greystones

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    1. Hi JJ. D.I.D. and Electrocity are the two stores. They both have the same budget tablet product but the sales guy I spoke to didn't know the difference between processor speed and onboard memory! I did my research online before I went in. By tablet I mean the same type of gizmo an the iPad - a computer with no keyboard, it's just a touch screen. You can plug in a keyboard, add more memory with a micro SD card and stuff like that. The basic e-readers (like my Kindle 4 and Kobo touch in the pic above) are only good for reading e-books but the latest devices like the Kindle Fire and Google Nexus are tablets.

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    2. Do you know whether the nook is available in Ireland yet? I know they launched it in the UK late last year.

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    3. As far as I know the Nook isn't avauilable in Ireland and downloading / installing the B&N Nook app is problematic in Ireland. I've heard that B&N will open the Pubit system to the UK but that will probably require a UK address and bank account. We seem to be last on everyone's list over here :-(

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  5. Must admit, I'm an Android fan. Always felt slightly trapped if all I had to deal with was Apple. :/ Having my first 'smarter than I am' phone, I love google play. The amount of free tat I've put on my phone is great. :D I'm sure I can do other stuff with it though...

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    1. Hi, Wendybird. If you're in love with Android you might like this golden oldie ...
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bTFCwKvlKZo

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  6. An excellent overview of the state of play. It happened to be what I needed, so thank you,
    Marj

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  7. Thanks for the discussion, Ruby. I just heard the news on Publisher's Weekly, that tablets now outnumber eReaders as the choice for eBooks. I suppose that makes sense. I know I don't like multiple devices sucking up power through their umbilical usb cables all over my desk. I found the Kindle kind of annoying, with all it's buttons, so I bought a B&N Nook Tablet, with which I can also get maps and email and menus... you get the picture. The tablet also has a removable SD Micro card which allows me to change which library I carry with me. Now if this thing could make phone calls... but it doesn't have a really useable keyboard, so I suppose I'll be market fodder for that device, whenever it shows up.

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    1. Hey Richard. I have the feeling that tablet users are mainly sticking to apps such as the Kindle, Nook and Kobo apps, rather than sourcing e-books from Google Play. Good point about the SD card. Whichever way you look at it, its a win for readers and authors.
      I saw an ad for a new Samsung device the other day that works as a phone but has a big enough display to be used as a tablet.

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