Measuring the first quarter: e-book sales data

Last week in The Bookseller we published the first quarterly bestsellers list with publisher supplied e-book data, following the chart we published in January as part of our Review of the Year. The chart shows the impact of 20p e-books, with some suggestions that the cheap e-books took oxygen away from other titles and curbed wider value growth in the market. Most importantly, the quarterly chart allows us to reflect on 20p as a price-point, and how we might understand bestsellers in such an environment.

There are three 20p titles in the list: there not because they sold huge volumes digitally, but because of their print numbers. Life of Pi is the highest, selling 423,133 copies in e-book format on top of the 97,601 it sold in paperback. Hesperus Press' Hundred Year Old Man . . . sold 353,474 copies at 20p, compared with the 63,371 it sold in print at an average price of £7.13. The third 20p e-book was Faber's Capital, which featured in the campaign towards the end of its run, it sold 54,185 copies in print and 54,253 in e-book (not all at 20p).       
The biggest selling e-books outside of the 20p-promoted titles were Gone Girl, with UK e-book sales of 60,000 making up 26% of the title’s overall sales, and The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, with e-book sales of 59,000 making up 28% of the book’s total.
The chart shows that there is again wide variance in the take-up of digital books compared with print titles. Despite taking second spot in the Top 50 with print sales of 199,000 copies, The Hairy Dieters sold just 10,398 copies in e-book format. The biggest-selling non-fiction e-book, identifiable from the top 50, was A Street Cat Named Bob, which shifted 18,000 copies digital, which represented 17% of its total sales.

Based on the numbers we'd suggest the total book market was worth £326m in the quarter to 23rd March, flat when compared to last year. But in volume terms the market was well ahead, up 7% with 55m print and e-books sold. We'd suggest that e-book growth was around 40%, much less in previous quarters, though much higher in volume terms than at the value level.
The topline is that twenty pence drove volume growth of a small range of titles, to the detriment of the wider market and other e-books. Longer term if this type of promotion comes back then we'll most probably witness a slight fall in the value of the book market - based on what consumers pay for books. If we looked at publisher revenue, we might reach a different conclusion.

Going into the second-quarter we'll begin to see the impact of agency-lite contracts, with some limited discounting across a wider range of titles now possible. Any chart will need to reflect on how discounting impacts bestsellers, and what price-points make a sale valid.
The Nielsen print charts are governed by a set of rules that are in place to do just that: books discounted beyond a certain level are excluded from The Bookseller's charts, and we treat different editions of the same title differently.
E-book charts are similarly governed by rules. The Wall Street Journal's e-book charts, also supplied by Nielsen, exclude free e-books and those sold for less than 99 cents. Digital Book World's e-book charts are delineated by price, four separate charts for books priced at different levels ($0 – $2.99; $3.00 – $7.99; $8.00 – $9.99; and $10.00 and above).

None of these charts have actual sales numbers though. And seeing the numbers does make a difference to how you might want to rank the charts. The 20p e-books were the only titles that outsold their print equivalents, and to a massive extent. And yet their print versions were still among the biggest hits in the quarter. Now we know the extent to which price drives sales online, without necessarily undermining print, can we ignore it?
In the physical world, though we exclude books that are discounted beyond 75%, it is rare that such titles would trouble the top of the bestseller charts. Discounting is a massive lever for sales through bookshops and supermarkets, but it is not the only lever, supply, display, stock levels, and promotional activity (beyond price) all still matter. And they effectively act as a break on discounting.
In e-books price is the primary driver of volume, unfettered by such old-world concepts as whether the book is in stock or on display. The 20p books show the full impact of price plus promotion, but other low price points pull off a similar trick.

Any future useful bestseller chart would need to acknowledge that but also reflect on the growing importance of the value of e-book sales. A 'box office' chart, ranked by the highest grossing e-books would generate a very different kind of chart for example, one with Gone Girl, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, and The Fast Diet, in the top three positions.



Numbers Game

Walter Ellis's picture

Fascinating, Philip. I thought I was doing the right thing by bringing the price of my self-published Kindle novels down to £1.99, from which I earn hardly anything per copy. But it turns out I'm still Old Skool.

By the way, did you get my email?

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