When e-books were growing

In digital publishing no sooner do we reach one milestone than another slaps us in the face. The figures released this week by Hachette UK are the first to truly demonstrate the step-change in e-book consumption since the beginning of the year.

Digital sales in the first quarter of 2012 were up 250% on the same period in 2011. E-book sales accounted for 20% of sales of relevant titles and over 30% in the case of certain fiction titles, an average of 25% of adult trade sales.

Earlier this year, the business' chief executive Tim Hely Hutchinson said "we have fulfilled our promises to become the leading British e-book publisher". On these numbers he may be right.

Just last week the Publishers Association's Statistics Yearbook noted the digital products were now 8% of total publishers' revenues in 2011. But this figure includes all e-books, digital downloads, apps, and, of course, books (digital or otherwise) from non-trade publishers.

A slightly better measure was the figure of 6%, which was the share taken by consumer e-books against all trade titles.

An even better figure, though, might be 13%, which was the share fiction digital books took of overall fiction sales.

The comparable figure for non-fiction was 3%, though this I reckon is pulled downwards by the fact that it includes both non-fiction and reference.

The general consensus among trade publishers at the end of last year was that e-book sales accounted for 10% of their total business. Though there is no statistically valid number, I think we can now agree that this looks broadly accurate. It was certainly bigger than 3%, but perhaps not quite as big as 13%.

The Hachette UK first quarter figure suggests that this has now doubled, with fiction titles and certain other trade titles racing ahead.

In his letter to authors and agents earlier this year, Hely Hutchinson also suggested the UK market was "catching up quickly" with the US. Again, these numbers back up this view. In the US, Hachette Book Group said in its first quarter that e-books accounted for 28% of adult trade sales.

What's more interesting, of course, are the books that are actually selling. What follows below is a chart of Hachette UK's e-book bestsellers to date, based on life sales of the titles in digital format.

There are just three non-fiction titles in the top 20, and each is unique—the Steve Jobs books, the TV spin-off Call the Midwife, and the remarkable Dukan Diet. But this is not as unusual as you might think: if I look at an equivalent list for just print titles, there are even fewer non-fiction titles, in fact just the Steve Jobs book and the Dukan Diet, are selling in the same numbers as Hachette's top fiction book. Narrowing the range to just 2012 sales, there are four non-fiction books (in addition to Dukan and Jobs, a Hairy Bikers' cookbook and a second Jennifer Worth title).

What is clear is that the biggest digital hits are the highly commercial titles such as One day, Twilight, and the Rosamund Lupton books. However, books from Jodi Picoult and Martina Cole don't appear yet to be repeating their print success in digital format, whereas e-book exclusives from Michael Connelly do seem to have had a knock-on impact for his other titles, while it is clear how author Stephen Leather's self-publishing success has also helped drive up sales of one of his backlist books (even though Hachette excludes it from the list).

As with the recent success of the Harry Potter books, we may surmise that some of the titles featuring in this list reflect pent-up demand from an audience that may have already experienced the titles either in print or as films. However, titles such as One Day and When God was a Rabbit show that print and digital markets can 'happily' co-exist: they are Hachette's bestselling print titles over the past year, and have sold equally well as e-books.

HACHETTE BESTSELLING E-BOOK TITLES MAY 2012 LIFE-TO-DATE print sales 2012 (life print sales)
1 One Day David Nicholls Hodder  F 64,216 (1,602,751)
2 Steve Jobs: Exclusive Biography Walter Isaacson Little, Brown NF 21,426 (239,316)
3 Breaking Dawn Stephenie Meyer Little, Brown C 28,669 (1,863,215)
4 Suicide Run: Three Harry Bosch Stories Michael Connelly Orion F e-exclusive
5 Twilight Stephenie Meyer Little, Brown C 22,620 (2,313,229)
6 Sister Rosamund Lupton Little, Brown F 19,933 (550,252)
7 When God was a Rabbit Sarah Winman Headline F 25,157 (319,930)
8 Call The Midwife Jennifer Worth Orion NF 268,211 (561,264)
9 Eclipse Stephenie Meyer Little, Brown C 13,270 (2,033,042)
10 New Moon Stephenie Meyer Little, Brown C 13,659 (2,149,669)
11 Angle of Investigation: Three Harry Bosch Short Stories Michael Connelly Orion F e-exclusive
12 Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy John le Carré Hodder F 19,014 (224,933)
13 The Dukan Diet Dr Pierre Dukan Hodder NF 42,478 (365,171)
14 The Fifth Witness Michael Connelly Orion F 34,105 (212,414)
15 The Litigators John Grisham Hodder F 28,198 (151,443)
16 The Drop Michael Connelly Orion F 7,850 (53,053)
17 Red Mist Patricia Cornwell Little, Brown F 57,985 (143,858)
18 Afterwards Rosamund Lupton Little, Brown F 10,859 (153,499)
Note: Stephen Leather's Hard landing was sold at a discounted price and therefore not comparable to the other titles, but it is the second bestselling title.

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