Print vs Ebook, and the Future of Publishing


Apparently, print isn’t dead. It’s just been taking a bit of a nap.


I was having a conversation the other day with a fellow author, which turned invariably to the future of publishing. I’m hearing some exciting things about the upswing of print. Indie bookstores are making a huge comeback. There’s a post I’ve seen several times today talking about how more Americans have visited libraries in 2019 than movie cinemas. This is exciting news.

At the same time, I also see it making things harder on exclusively indie authors. Until my book ‘I Died Swallowing a Goldfish and Other Life Lessons from the Morgue’, my book sales were pretty much around 99% ebook and 1% print. The aforementioned book broke that trend, and I’d estimate it’s about 65% print and 35% ebook. I think that has to do with it being nonfiction as opposed to my fiction titles. People naturally want nonfiction in print as opposed to digital.

But what does that mean for the indie/self-published author, who since around 2010 has been king of the publishing world, and upset the status quo of the big houses and traditional publishers who’ve held the reigns since Gutenberg and his famous press? While ebooks are still very popular, and maintain a strong hold on the market, there’s no doubt that print is slowly beginning to once more take the lead.

At my day job, we have a regular influx of college interns, whose age hovers around the 18 to 24 year range. When nothing is going on at the office, a number of these interns spend time with their nose in books—and not just in text books. The other day, I noticed our newest employee (who had been an intern only a few months earlier) was reading a thriller novel. Even more surprising, she was reading an actual wood-pulp printed, dog-eared honest to goodness book. It took me by surprise. After all, hadn’t this generation completely embraced the digital age? Wasn’t their music digital? Didn’t they order meals on their phones to have it delivered straight to their doors? Did they not watch movies on their tablets, given up cable for streaming services, and regularly found dating partners by phone apps like Tinder?

“What sorcery is this?” I asked our newest employee. “A print book?”

She beamed back at me, and hefted the rather dense tome in her hand. “Oh yeah. I just prefer the feel of a real book in my hands. Not a big fan of ebooks,” she told me.

Apparently, this is becoming more and more common place. The younger generation surprisingly is embracing old fashioned books with pages and ink and the occasional grub worm to the flashy tech of ebook devices and tablets.

And I couldn’t have been happier by this news. Until the full weight of things hit me.

I’m an indie author. Exclusively. While I’ve dabbled a bit in trying to sell one or two of my books to agents and publishers, I’ve been quite content with self-publishing my stuff. It offers me unrestrictive freedom. It doesn’t require me to sell my ideas to anyone but the reader. I’m totally in charge of my own destiny. And I like that.

So going back to my conversation I was having with my fellow author. He told me during the conversation that he was quite happy with being an indie author as well, and had no desire to pursue anything within the traditional realm. And this is what I explained to him.

Just as it was back around 2010 and the digital publishing revolution, it seems as though we are heading toward a counter-revolution where print is king. And although new indie bookstores are starting to pop up around neighborhood street corners again, there are still the same problems with these stores as we’ve had since the beginning: limited shelf space. Another problem indie authors are about to face with this changing dynamic is the resurgence of the old vanguard and the traditional ways publishers and bookstores cooperate. Quite simply: if you’re an indie author, have you ever tried getting your print books into a brick and mortar store? It’s nearly impossible (emphasis on ‘nearly’ because while it has happened, it’s certainly not easy). That’s because since the height of the publishing age, there has been a way of doing things when it comes to publishers encouraging bookstores to carry their books. A set of rules that must be followed by both the publisher and the bookstore. Rules that the average indie author simply can’t afford to do, and once again, the leveling power of the digital market is about to take a nosedive.

So, what am I trying to say? Is this blog post doom and gloom for self-published authors? I certainly hope not. I make it no secret that I have great disdain for the lack of imagination and risk taking that traditional publishers have. I often  disparage the lack of good book choices when I visit my local Barnes and Noble, and how it seems that every book is supposed to be “the next” such and such author or book title. Publishers are scrambling to redo and remake other book successes, and they’re not interested in anything really new, intriguing, or fun. They have their own political and social agendas, of course, that they try to impose on the reading public as well. This is why, as a reader, I love indie published books. I find them more often to be fun, different, and colorful. They don’t seem to be as self-important as those published by elitist publishers. So, I almost exclusively patronize indie authors to the detriment of those traditionally done.

I’m not trying to scare anyone. I’m simply wanting to make people aware of the changes I see coming. I’m also trying to encourage my fellow writers to prepare to adapt for the future. That’s what made indie publishing so great to begin with…our ability to adapt to the changing market. It’s what caused the traditional publishers to stumble about for so long—they are notoriously known to be resistant to change, and it hurt them. Set them back about a decade in fact. But it seems they’ve finally caught up. So, we can’t be resistant to change as they were. We’ve got to recover quickly and evolve.

For those authors like my friend I was speaking with who was comfortable with being indie and had no desire to approach the traditional market, I say this: never say never. Keep an open mind. While my last few attempts to sell my books to traditional markets made me want to wipe my hands of the whole affair (I felt awfully dirty throughout the whole process, by the way), and the state of social justice agenda of most traditional publishers, I’m still reserving my right to utilize them in the future. I will still continue to pick a project here and there, and see what happens among the traditional elite. Why? Simple. Because I write stories that I want people to read. The more people who read them, the happier I am. I write to entertain (rarely to inform). I write to thrill (rarely to indoctrinate). My books are fun, but they’re no less important than those designed to change the world. Because of that, I’ll use whatever means I can employ to ensure my books always find an audience. If bookstores are the retro wave of the future (and I certainly hope they are! There’s no place I find more peace than in a good bookstore), I want to strive to be part of it. And I think you should too. 

Recent Comments

  • Sally Ross
    January 25, 2020 - 8:37 pm · Reply

    Kent, Shame on you. The printing revolution was initiated in the late 1800s with the invention of the Linotype machine by Ottmar Mergenthaler which permitted faster and easier printing of newspapers and books. At the time it was called the eighth wonder of the world by the New York Times. It is unfortunate that his contribution in history has been obscured by time. Had Samuel Clemens backed Ottmar he would not have been financially ruined. A little trivia by his great niece.

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