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Are eReaders and Tablets Killing PDF Sales?

One of the reasons I push new authors to publish on Kindle is because the installed user base of Kindle owners is highly motivated to shop for eBooks from Amazon. The reasons are many, from the sunk cost of the device which is amortized over every new purchase, to one-click buying and trust in Amazon as a merchant. The flip side of people happily buying quantities of eBooks from Amazon, Barnes&Noble and Apple is that it probably makes them less likely to buy a PDF direct from an author’s website. The reasons run the exact opposite of the above: lack of vendor trust, relatively complicated checkout, and lack of desire to read the downloaded book on a computer screen, or worse, to read a PDF scrunched onto a small screen device.

I finally sat down for the first time in two years to look at my direct PDF sales numbers adjusted for traffic changes, and I was surprised to find that sales have dropped more than twice as much as those traffic changes would imply. Some of that might be explained by the quality of visitors, maybe the search engines are sending inappropriate people, but my gut feeling is that even technical readers are eschewing PDFs, including printable PDFs without DRM, in favor of shopping for reflowable eBooks at the big retailers for their associated devices.

At the same time, I don’t see a gold rush in technical nonfiction on eInk Kindles or Nooks because the small screens just aren’t that well suited page designs that include text and diagrams or text and photos. As the number of tablets continues to grow, I think we’ll see the growth of a subcategory of Kindle eBooks that are designed for tablets only. I would be tempted to try this with one of my larger format books right now, but I don’t see a way from preventing owners of eInk Kindles and the smaller Fires from purchasing the eBook, which would result in a bad customer experience and bad reviews.

If this had been posed to me as a theoretical question before the existence of multiple Kindle devices, I would have guessed that a description stating that the eBook was optimized for large screen Fire and for iPad would have prevented people with the smaller devices from purchasing it. But based on a limited study of customer reviews of Kindle eBooks, I’ve concluded that many buyers (and borrowers) barely glance at the title, much less the subtitle or book description. They simply arrive at the product page through Amazon’s referral system, buy or borrow the book, then rush to post flames berating everything from Amazon Prime rules to their own inability to read.

But as my direct PDF sales continue in a tailspin, at approximately 10% of the level of two years ago, I’m growing tempted to discontinue them altogether. I really enjoyed having $20K a year or so of publishing income that was in no way dependent on paper books or large Internet retailers, but it was fatally dependent on both search traffic and on a thirst for eBooks that Kindle, Nook and iPad are now filling through other channels.

Update: Make sure you read the comments from Kevin Sivils below which directly contradict my thesis:-)

18 comments to Are eReaders and Tablets Killing PDF Sales?

  • Hi Morris,

    Your collapse in site-based sales of pdf eBooks is very interesting, and almost certainly the destiny for this now ‘old school’ method of eBook marketing.

    I think anybody wanting to continue to sell high-priced eBooks through their site will need to move to multi-media information products that offer something well beyond the Kindle experience (e.g. videos, webinars, and so on).

    Such products are often the territory of scammy types, I know, but it strikes me as the only potential solution for someone who doesn’t want to go Kindle (or equivalent) for whatever reasons.

    On another subject, you seem to underestimate (or at least not mention any more) the POD market for non-fiction. I currently have three non-fiction Kindle titles and even when they are at the top of their categories, sales are nothing special. This suggests to me that people still want physical books for non-fiction works, and something like CreateSpace is probably still the best way to market them.

    In fact, my readers are constantly asking me, much to my disappointment, when I am going to publish my titles as ‘real’ books. Hopefully this year I’ll do that, and I suspect the sales will be very good.

    In short, I think people selling non-fiction (Kindle unfriendly) eBooks should either flesh them out into valuable multi-media-rich products, or go the POD route, until the eReader experience for technical non-fiction improves considerably.

    Am I right in thinking you have given up on POD by the way, Morris?



  • Derek,

    I never considered doing a second edition of my POD Publishing book, but I haven’t given up on POD at all. POD is still the way to go for most nonfiction in my mind, though it can’t hurt to do Kindle versions as well. I just haven’t been writing nonfiction the last couple years. Why haven’t you gotten around to publishing on paper yet? CreateSpace makes it trivial. Read Arron Shepard’s “POD For Profit.”

    My own PDF sales were low price, lower than the print book list prices by between 20% and 40%, so I have titles at $9.95, $11.95 and $13.95. I suspect that the high priced PDF sales by “infomerchants” I’ve written about in the past won’t suffer since their sales are driven purely by advertising and they are targetting people who are easily taken in and desperate for information.


  • Morris,

    “Why haven’t you gotten around to publishing on paper yet? CreateSpace makes it trivial. Read Arron Shepard’s “POD For Profit.”

    There isn’t much advice around the Web for non-fiction authors, and I incorrectly assumed that Kindle was the place to be no matter what the genre.

    Because I created my books in raw HTML (not in Word), I now have to reformat every single page for PDF output (there is decent way I know of to convert HTML/Mobi into Word or PDF). So far, I haven’t been able to face the conversion.

    Also, one of my Kindle books is a bit unusual. It’s more of a ‘look up’ tool than a book, and if printed out would take up around 10,000 pages ;-) So that one really has to stay digital.

    I purchased both your book and Arron Shepard’s some time ago, but again, never got around to properly reading them when I developed the erroneous belief that Kindle was the way to go, regardless of genre.

    I will probably produce a few titles this year in Word, this time, so that I can do Kindle/CreateSpace at the same time.

    We live and learn, hey?


    P.S. Another big boost to the KDP Select pool by Amazon I notice in their latest newsletter!

  • Morris,

    I only sell my books via Amazon/Barnes and Noble in POD and Kindle/Nook versions. I have an e-Newsletter that goes out to just over 3,000 individuals.

    In a recent survey to try to determine what books/topics I should do next I asked which format would they prefer, paperback, Kindle, Nook, etc.

    For some reason I included downloadable PDFs.

    I was stunned at the response. 74% of the responses indicated the preferred mode of obtaining the information I have to sell would be by downloadable PDF.

    So now I have to figure out how to make that happen.

    Perhaps it is the nature of the niche I write for (basketball coaches). A lot of the information (photographs and diagrams) don’t translate well to Kindle. While they have to download the PDF, they don’t have to wait for the delivery of a paperback copy.

    I guess this falls under the category of make your book available in as many different ways as possible.

    Of course, after I go to the time, trouble, effort, and expense to set up a way to sell my books as downloadable PDFs, that 74% could decide they want the books in paperback or Kindle versions.


  • Kevin,

    I wonder if they associate “downloadable PDF” with free, since that’s how most people get them. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come comments from downloaders on piracy sites that make it clear they don’t all realize it’s piracy, especially older guys, judging from their expressions. They just assume that it’s all legal or it couldn’t be out in the open, and that the publisher is making money in some magical way.

    But maybe basketball coaches want printable books with diagrams they can transfer to three hole binders or clipboards.


  • Derek,

    Just strip out the html, lots of ways of doing that (save as options, or cut-and-paste from bowser), format in Word and save as PDF. Most books will ony take an hour or two if you’re comfortable in Word.


  • I don’t know what your books are like, but Sony issued a guide years ago to optimizing PDFs for a 6″ eInk screen:

  • Derek,

    On the Select bonus, I’m sure the reason they upped the January bonus from $350,000, which made the total pool $1,050,000, to a bonus of a cool million, for a total pool of $1,700,000, is because they undershot their target amount in December when the payout fell below $2. Given that January is practically over, they are must be tweaking it up based on the projection it would have gone even lower. My guess is they are selling more Fire’s than they expected, or the number of people who bought Fire’s who are re-upping for Prime is higher than they expected.

    But I was so far off in my November predictions for December that I’m leaving January alone:-)


  • Mike,

    Thanks for that:-)

    The main issue with the books that I would like to make available on Kindle but haven’t is large flowcharts, they are over 9″ x 6″ in the latest edition and they are optimized for that size, in terms of font size, line width and density. There’s also an issue with the way the text is indexed to the flowcharts, using repeated flowchart symbols in the margins, which would be very unnatural in any eBook format without a large enough screen. I could use clickable image maps on the web to tie the text to the flowcharts, but I don’t think Kindle didn’t support clickable image maps the last time I looked.

    Still, the main sticking point is the image size. 9″ x 6″ really doesn’t scale down to 5″ x 3.5″ or 6″ x 4″, everything gets too tiny, and there’s no practical way to break the flowcharts over multiple pages without creating a real mess. I hate panning and zooming images on any type of device myself, but maybe the mobile phone using population is so used to it by now they wouldn’t mind on the touch-screen eReaders. But it would still be a major hassle on the keyboard/joystick versions.


  • Morris,

    They are aware I meant PAY for the information because the question directly stated BUY information from me.

    I think you are correct in that most coaches I know who take the profession seriously are all pack rats with exactly what you described, three-ring binders organized either by coach or by topic.

    At any rate, when 74% of your potential customers say they want to obtain your product a specific way, you probably need to pay attention. Of course, this makes piracy much easier as well which you have documented on your blog.


  • Kevin,

    I doubt the guys who say they are willing to pay and are engaged enough to respond to a survey are part of the piracy demographic. And if I remember, you have a number of related books, so you can expieriment with just one, or with a new title, just to see what happens.

    I only got worried about losing customers when Google started promoting piracy sites above mine in search for searches on my titles. My school sales dried up in a hurry, I’m sure there’s a ton of peer pressure on campus to accept a “free” copy from a friend rather spending the $9.95 for the eBook or $14.95 for the paper text. For kids, thats’s the principle of the thing:-)


  • Morris,

    Your thesis is still correct. As one of my mentors used to tell me when I was seeking counsel on how to deal with a disagreement, “you can both be right. Find a way to make that work.”

    Perhaps the issue is I deal with a very different and specialized market that is not as tech savvy yet as the one you deal with. Free always gets a good response but they are willing to pay for information they want or need. Most of my buyers are 30+ years old.

    You indicated a lot of the piracy you deal with comes from college age students who think everything should be free if it is on the internet. The high school students I teach have the same attitude and the English and History departments where I teach work really hard to rid them of that attitude.

    I point out to them that if they were to “pirate” one of my books, they cut into my ability to pay for my youngest daughter’s competitive gymnastics (most of my students know Emily as she visits my campus every once in a while) or pay my light bill. This comment usually gets a surprised response from a few who will state they never thought of piracy like that before.

    Could it be the PDF sales issue is topic specific? Overall I would agree with you, particularly in the market you write for. Perhaps I just have a different niche market.

    Possibly the issue is really know your market and how your customers want to receive delivery of your information.

  • RayS

    As a writer, I have two novels on Kindle but will be doing POD of two books of Western history & a memoir because my market is there. May add ebooks later.

    As a build-it-yourself reader, PDFs work for me.

    I used to read a site which is still maintained by the deceased owner’s friend. With the late writer’s agreement (and his family’s) the friend collected some of the essay and had them published in paper, which I gladly bought (greatly prefer paper). There are a lot more essays but the friend has made no move to publish more, so maybe the sales on the first book were not encouraging. Fearing the eventual loss of the entire website and it’s writing, I downloaded all the essays as PDFs. I used Acrobat to combine them and have printed and bound my own copy. If they all come out officially, I will be happy to buy, but at least I have a copy, digital and paper.

    I do the same thing on public-domain PDFs from various sites.

  • Brian Smithson


    As a production person who deals with non-technical output as PDF a great deal, I can tell you there are a number of ways to secure your PDF files so that they can be read and printed (or not, as the case might be) by the person who bought the file by using a password system.

    Of course, the buyer can pass the password on to someone else, but there are even more sophisticated solutions available that can tie the PDF down to a specific number of viewings and/or printing. You can even allow only one person to interact with the file.

  • Gareth

    PDF files can be stamped with the buyers details, which can discourage copyright infringement / piracy and is less inhibiting than DRM. Just search for “PDF stamping”.

    Interesting subject. Non-fiction hasn’t exactly followed the eBook boom due to its layout but hopefully has its place in the market.

  • Gareth,

    Thank you. Yes, the eBook service I use,, offers PDF stamping, but I never bothered with it because the books I published as PDFs were all over the piracy networks before it became available a couple years ago.


  • Kenneth Greifer


    I hope it is ok to ask you this question about PDFs and ebook readers so long after you put this posting up. Why don’t people just make PDFs with smaller pages that would fit better on the small ebook reader screens? What size page and font would work and do you think this makes sense?

    Kenneth Greifer

  • Kenneth,

    You can certainly do that, I even wrote a blog post about it once with an example PDF:

    But Amazon doesn’t sell PDFs anymore, so it’s sort of pointless.


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