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Why The Battle Between E-Books And Print May Be Over


Sales of e-books from the major publishers are down, but that doesn't mean that people are turning back to print books as some recent reports have suggested. In fact, some self-published authors argue the e-book share of the market is growing. NPR's Lynn Neary takes a look at who, if anyone, is actually winning in the battle between digital and print.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: When the e-book market started taking off, the publishing industry was worried.

LEN VLAHOS: I think worry is a nice way of putting it. There was near hysteria in the publishing industry.

NEARY: Len Vlahos is co-owner of the Tattered Cover Book Store in Denver. When digital reading devices became popular around 2008, the e-book market skyrocketed. For several years in a row, e-book sales increased by triple digits. Vlahos says everyone in the business was convinced print books would go the way of CDs. Then a couple of years ago, the market began leveling. And last month when the American Association of Publishers released revenue figures for the first 5 months of this year showing that e-book sales were down by 10 percent, Vlahos says some welcomed the news.

VLAHOS: The most voracious readers are now - they're really reading in multiformat. And I think it took a while for that to settle down. And I think now that it's settling down, I think there is probably a little bit of relief just that it's becoming a slightly more predictable market.

NEARY: But a lot of people in the book business simply shrugged when they saw the most recent figures. And they were surprised by a New York Times report that saw the decline in e-book sales as a good thing for the industry.

TOM ALLEN: Some people took those numbers as a great thing that print wasn't going away. Well, we've known for a long time that print isn't going away.

NEARY: Tom Allen is the president and CEO of the Association of American Publishers, also known as the AAP. Publishers, says Allen, don't really care what kind of book people are choosing to read as long as they are buying books.

ALLEN: That is, they want to sell what people want to buy in the way people want to buy them. And that's why they publish hardbacks and they publish paperbacks and they publish e-books and they develop audio.

NEARY: To understand what's happening in e-book sales, you have to look at the whole market, says Michael Cader, founder of Publishers Marketplace, a widely read online industry newsletter. Not only did e-book revenues decline. Hardcovers were down 11 percent as well. Cader says both sectors were hurt by the fact that there were no big blockbusters in the first half of the year, no "Fifty Shades Of Grey" or "Hunger Games" to boost overall sales. And, Cader says, there was another factor that affected e-book sales.

MICHAEL CADER: If you read the publishers' dollar sales are down, that doesn't necessarily mean that people have turned their backs on e-books and they're not reading them. It just means that the prices of what they're paying for those e-books may have changed.

NEARY: And prices have gone up since the big five publishing companies worked out new contracts with Amazon which allow them to set the price of their own e-books. Cader says the market for both print and digital has stabilized for now, but publishers are still not exactly sure what to expect down the road.

CADER: The biggest uncertainty for them is not knowing if things have really leveled off or if this is just a pause while we wait for a new technology or habits to change yet again or whether a powerful player like Amazon is just converting its own customer base.

DATA GUY: They may be driving consumers not from e-books to print but from their e-books to lower-priced indie e-books and Amazon-published e-books.

NEARY: That's Data Guy. He and self-publishing phenomenon Hugh Howey are the masterminds behind Author Earnings, a report which looks at the book market from a different perspective. Data Guy uses a pseudonym because he's also an author and wants to keep his two roles separate because - well, because the traditional publishing industry, as he calls it, is skeptical of Author Earnings. Data Guy in turn says the traditional way of tracking book sales leaves out a big part of the e-book market.

DATA GUY: The big picture that they present is based on the sales of essentially 1,200 publishers only. And the assumption in traditional circles is that, well, that must surely represent the vast majority of book sales - 85 percent, 90 percent. And in the print world, that's definitely true.

NEARY: But that's not true for e-books especially self-published e-books, most of which are sold by Amazon. And Amazon does not report sales figures, so the Author Earnings guys figured out a way to estimate them by gathering data from the Amazon site. Their figures are not based on dollars but on the number of books sold. According to Author Earnings, the e-book market is thriving, but traditional publishers' share of it has slipped to about one-third. And Data Guy believes the e-book market will continue to grow well into the future.

DATA GUY: There is an entire generation that is coming up for whom electronic devices are second nature. You know, I see my own kids. I see how they interact with both print books and digital. I know that if I let my kids, they would make that shift to digital a lot more quickly than even I did.

NEARY: And print books - oh, yes, says Data Guy. They'll be around too, maybe just not as many of them. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lynn Neary is an NPR arts correspondent covering books and publishing.