The invisible e-book

My ever wise FutureBook colleague Sam Missingham made these comments on Twitter in response to a news story we ran in The Bookseller this week about digital sales decelerating.

She is right, of course. The analysis from which the headline is derived, is based on Top 50 books of the year so far as measured by their print sales performance, with e-book numbers included.

We found, for example, that Inferno sold 205,189 copies in e-book format, roughly 29% of its total sale; Gone Girl 208,395, 35% of its total; and Sylvia Day's Entwined With You 201,894 copies digitally, 55% of its total.

The Bookseller received e-book sales data for close to 40 of the top 50 list, with the data showing that e-book sales accounted for roughly 25% of the print Top 50’s total sales across all editions. That would put total e-book volume sales in the first half of 2013 at 31 million (worth about £93m) with a year-end prediction of 72 million (£220m), roughly the same as the value of the digital market in 2012.

We used the same methodology in January, when we calculated the 2012 e-book sales number. Then we estimated that the market in 2012 for traditionally published e-books was worth around £200m. In May the Publishers Association put out a figure for consumer e-book sales of £216m, based on the sales reported back by its member publishers. So the methodology is consistent and the projection sound.

But, and as I put in The Bookseller report, this does not measure the impact of the self-publishing market or of Amazon’s own digital publishing [Amazon last week launched a summer promotion featuring only Amazon-published e-books, priced £1.49], or—and particularly in 2012—Harry Potter. The half-year data also does not take into account the significant boost the digital market may get this summer, or the impact of runaway bestsellers such as Fifty Shades—or, potentially, The Cuckoo’s Calling. Or if 20p returns.

But most importantly, the analysis, based on print book bestsellers, is already weighted against e-books. The top-selling print books may not also be the top-selling e-books.

I have now seen some data for the biggest selling standalone e-books, and a different picture emerges. While we report that the average E to P+E ratio is around 25% for books featured in the Top 50, for books that are e-book bestsellers that percentage leaps, almost to 50%. This means for that some types of publishing, and certain styles of books, talk of a deceleration may seem way off.

Earlier this year, Stephen Page wrote Publishing Fairytales as a response to the industry meme of e-book sales levelling off, and Sam wrote this on FutureBook, Happy Endings. I don't disagree with either analysis, except I think both overstate the amount of wishful thinking going on.

In the US the narrative has been similar, booming sales for a few years, and followed by rapid deceleration in that growth. While we can debate the meaning of this, it is hard to argue that the growth curve has not shallowed, and done so before many thought it would. There is talk of sales plateauing at around 30%, as in the UK they appear to have coalesced at around 25%.

Except, I'm not really convinced by this. I agree with Sam. There is a sense that e-book sales are "booming" and yet there is no data to back this up.

One of the problems is that the data we do have is inevitably skewed. Almost all of the data we have about the e-book market is rooted in how e-books are doing when compared to print books. When we talk about e-book growth what we have really been talking about is digital migration.

What we have so far failed to measure is e-books that are e-books first, be they self-published e-books, or books that have simply outperformed in digital format. There are many, many, e-books that are selling in the 1,000s that have little or no relation to the performance of their print book equivalent, if indeed they have one. They may be Amazon published, or released via an agent's White Glove list; they may be part of a backlist digital list such as the Bloomsbury Reader, or put out by one of the growing range of front-list digital lists, such as Blackfriars; or they may be self-published.

While it may be over-egging the case to suggest that it is boom-time for these titles, what I hear increasingly is that there are many such examples of good sales that happen beneath the radar.

E-book sales are headed in only one direction: that is up. But this market is also broadening out, and taking on a life of its own. E-books have a commercial reality that is different from the print market. What we interpret as a slowdown may actually be sales disappearing from sight.




Peter and Sam

It is possible to do this from consumer (book-buyer) surveying as well. This isn't a perfect solution by any stretch, but allows for another data point to add to the picture. There are active studies going on in the UK, USA and Canada (that I know of?) that focus on what formats consumers are purchasing (amongst other things) and why they deciding to purchase those formats. 

Interestingly enough these surveys are agnostic about whether the book is traditonally published, self-published or anon-published. Many consumers don't know, or care, about the difference, but if you ask them what the format of the content/book was they can usually tell you easily/accurately. This kind of data is usually better at a macro-view of the market, but is still very useful for analyzing what is going on. Especially in the absence of good aggregated e-retailer data.

Our data in Canada shows that ebook sales have been fairly steady now for the last 3, or 4, quarters. Still big, but not growing as it did. I'm not sure I would say 'booming'. However, specific titles may be showing a completely different pattern and (as always) someone else's data might say something different. 


Noah Genner

BookNet Canada



The Invisible E-Book

Interesting peice. My company - Endeavour Press - is publishing 30 e-books a month and selling a lot of books every week. Other companies and individuals are doing the same. So far as I know, no one is recording these figures. So while it would it would be great to have accurate figures on the size of the market no one has them yet. My guess is that the e-book market is still growing rapidly. 

Nobody knows nothing

Am I wrong or is the only published data regarding the e-book market based on information glean from so called "traditional" publishers. If no one is in a position to track sales of independent and/or self-published e-books, then any narrative about the growth (or not) of the e-book seems a bit, well, speculative.

Hey Peter

Sam Missingham's picture

Thanks for commenting, until Amazon et al cooperate with real sales figures, figures from trad publishers is a very good starting point.

But, yes the indie author sales and other non-trad sale are needed for full picture.This is what I was trying to get to with this:-

Happy days :)

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