Up, and up, and up

The headline numbers for the Publishers Association's annual assessment of the UK books marketplace are startling: consumer e-book sales increased by 366% in 2011, amounting to £92m, with consumer e-book sales now equivalent to 6% of the overall consumer book market.

It is the fourth year of treble digit digital growth, while print continues its steady decline. As the PA's Richard Mollet makes clear: “Across fiction, non-fiction, children’s and academic books, the story of the year is a decline in physical sales almost being compensated for by a strong performance in digital."

To really understand the statistics we have to unpick them, however. As I write this, I haven't seen the digital pages of this year's PA Statistics Yearbook (it is published tomorrow), so I don't know if the PA has changed its methodology, or what numbers are being compared this time around. When I get this report, I'll update this blog.

The £92m figure appears to be based on the PA's estimate of total UK publisher's e-books sales (though not including audio downloads, or non-trade stuff), based on the PA's assessment that its stats cover 70% of the total market. Last year the equivalent number was about £20m (£17m to £20m actually). I do not have a number for how this 366% rise measures to growth in previous years: last year the PA said the e-book market was worth £13m, not including audio downloads, non-trade and only based on those companies in the PA survey (so a smaller measure), having grown by 466% in 2008 to 2009, and by 574% in the period from 2009 to 2010. It is not until we see this number, that we'll have a clearer picture of the UK e-book market: and whether it grew faster in 2011 than in the previous years, or whether the rate of growth actually slowed.

The £92m does appear to be based on invoiced prices: but it is not clear how publishers selling under agency agreements account for this, since their invoiced numbers should be the same as the price paid by the consumer (the retailer then gets a commission of 30%). It could be that half the market operates in this way, but the fact that the other half does not, would mean this number at retail price could be as high as £110m to £120m. If agency publishers account for their sales differently, then it could be a number closer to £140m or £150m, which is what previous predictions have suggested.

The PA also tells us that digital business now accounts for 8% of of the total invoiced value of sales of books in 2011, up from 5% in 2010, with overall digital sales up by 54% to £243m. These numbers are for all digital sales, including reference and non-trade materials. Last year, consumer e-book made up just 11% of this number, so although we are fixated on trade e-book sales, the rest of the publishing community remains far advanced.

But it is not clear whether this £243m figure is based on the PA's reporting panel, which last year saw overall digital sales at £120m, or the PA's estimate for the total market for digital sales, which last year the PA reported was worth £170m to £180m, said to be worth 5% of the overall market.

Overall, the the combined sales of digital and physical books decreased by 2% to £3.2bn. "Physical books remain the format of choice for the vast majority of British readers, underlining the continued importance of a strong 'high street' sector," concluded Mollet.

Since publication, I've received the following note from the PA: Those providing digital sales in
2009–11 are estimated to account for a round three-quarters of the total for UK publishers as a whole, while those providing digital figures in 2007– 08 represented around half of the digital total for those years. It helps to explain why there is some discrepancy between the percentage increases seen this year, and the numbers reported last year. But I still haven't seen the full chapter on digital sales, which is not being published until tomorrow.

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