Plateauing is sometimes hard to do

Hachette's August e-book bump appeared to come as a surprise to some. The group reported earlier today that August was a “record-breaking month” in e-books for Hachette UK, with digital sales up 80% year-on-year.

Actually, if you'd been reading The Bookseller's E-Book Rankings each month you'd have been less surprised. In August Hachette companies had five out of the top ten list, including the top two titles, J K Rowling's The Casual Vacancy (UK volume sales of 46,229), and Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl (37193). Out of the whole top 50, it has 12 titles. There was also The Cuckoo's Calling (JK's other title, which entered the e-book ranking in July in top position, and has been in the top 10 ever since).

Hachette UK also told us that e-book sales accounted for 30% of the adult trade market in the UK in the third quarter, up 10 percentage points on last year. That represents growth of about a third, which almost exactly matches that reported by HarperCollins Worldwide overnight.

Both suggest what has been well reported for most of this year that, statistically speaking, the rate of e-book growth is slowing down--even if growth of 30% remains a strong compensatory number. But just as e-book growth wasn't linear, the relative slow-down may also prove lumpy.

All publishers' sales numbers are somewhat influenced by a small number of bestsellers, as we saw last year with Fifty Shades, and will see this year thanks to Rowling, Flynn, and latterly Ferguson. But equally, the Hachette numbers suggest that summer sales came later this year than last. According to our analysis of the monthly e-book ranking, e-book sales peaked at 5.8m in July, but have since fallen back to 5.6m in August, and 4.4m in September, the Nielsen measured print market having almost the exact opposite trajectory.

Looking through the prism of Twitter today one would think there was a clash of civilisations between digital advocates and the rest (i.e. publishers). The e-heads suggest that there is a mix of bad maths and wish-fulfilment in the interpretation of these numbers.


I'm somewhere in the middle of this conversation. Clearly some book publishers (and one large retailer) would be quite happy if e-books leveled off, or simply went away. But this is not a majority view. Contrary to what some media outlets reported last week e-books haven't killed off any publishers: in fact in the main they have led to increased profit margins.

E-book growth has largely sustained trade publishers during the latter years of the big recession, and even if they do now, as some say, 'plateau', profit margins may continue to grow as publishers learn to better manage their inventories and working capital across the rest of their business.

The battle between the e-heads and 'the rest' looks to me like a phony war. There is still too much about the e-book market we don't know (and Amazon won't tell us) to make more than reasonable guestimates. We don't know for real the impact of cheap bestsellers, and whether those depress the wider market or spark it; and equally significantly, we don't know the size of the self-publishing bit. Longer term, we cannot assess yet the likely impact of new e-ink devices, or any transition to tablets.

We do know that whatever the look of it, digital is more than just a growth curve. It is a complete re-wiring of the system. Another interesting line in the Hachette story sums this up rather well. "Hachette UK now sells e-books in 190 territories worldwide."

In this context the word 'plateau' is not inaccurate, but if it is taken to mean everything stops moving or that we are reaching a stable period, it is an unhelpful term. Nothing stops from this point onwards.

There are four days left to book on The FutureBook Conference 2013, which includes a session on "The next wave of e-book sales", with contributions from Nielsen's Andre Breedt, Charlie Campbell from the Ed Victor Literary Agency, Dale Peters, head of corporate development from RM Books, and Ziyad Marar, global publishing director, SAGE.
Book your place here.




Philip Jones's picture

Thanks, and you spelt phony right, unlike me!

But people say 'plateauing', which is more accurate. But you are right at 30%, even that word looks a bit off.

Still not a plateau

John Pettigrew's picture

I agree with your point that it's something of a phony war. There shouldn't be any conflict here - both print advocates and ebook junkies want to see more people buying their content. Format should matter as little as the choice between paperback and hardcover.

What bugs me (and some others) is nothing to do with ebooks versus print. It's an issue of the understanding of maths and data representation. In essence, if the graph's not flat then it's not a plateau, and 30% growth is nowhere near flat.

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