E-book sales data, the truth is out there

Published for the first time in the UK e-book sales data throws a chink of light on the size and variance of the e-book market and its relationship to print book sales. The basic numbers are clear. The data shows that the e-book market for traditionally published digital books is much bigger than previously thought, with estimates suggesting that a total number of 65 million e-books were sold in 2012, representing a value of about £200m - at least double what it was in 2011 (in volume terms more than double). That would mean the overall book market grew in 2012, despite spending on print books falling £74m.

The data was gathered from the major trade publishers, and those smaller presses with books in The Bookseller's Top 50 of 2012, including Hesperus Press. The approach harks back to pre-Nielsen BookScan days when Peter Harland of Bookwatch and Alex Hamilton of 'fastsellers' fame would compile bestseller lists based on publishers' sales. Unlike those days, when publishers could inflate sales by ignoring returns, and including exports, the data we have is based on e-books that have actually sold (there are no returns in the e-book world, and we asked for UK sales only).

Excluding titles where e-book sales data wasn't given, the average share of book sales in the top 50 that came from digital editions was 16% - but there were huge fluctuations within the data, not least within genre. Just 7% of total sales of the non-fiction titles in the chart came by way of "e", however, the e-book share of cheaper non-fiction titles that are currently available in paperback formats (Call the Midwife, A Street Cat Named Bob, Thinking Fast and Slow), were higher at between 12% and 21%.

The e-book share of adult-audience novels in the Top 50 is significantly higher than non-fiction and children's, with the print/e-book share averages being 74%/26%. But even within the fiction sector, there are fluctuations. A massive 45% of sales of S J Watson's Before I Go to Sleep and Jonas Jonasson's The Hundred-Year-Old Man came in "e" in 2012, but just 8% of sales of Sue Townsend's The Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year were digital.

Of course not all the titles listed in the top 50 will have been the biggest e-books of the year, and had we re-ranked the list according to total print and e-book sales, fiction titles would have moved up the list (and new ones come in) at the expense of non-fiction books. Anchoring the chart by print sales allows us to limit the universe, and also un-artificially exclude most 20p e-bestsellers and self-published titles. I have nothing against either, but the chart needs to be meaningful beyond a duplicate of the Kindle bestseller lists. Of course the intention is not to replace third-party e-book bestsellers lists when they become available, but to use this data to supplement The Bookseller's analysis of the physical book market each week. (Contrary to what I've read elsewhere the lack of e-book sales data from NielsenBookScan does not undermine that service, but serves to emphasize how important it has become as a service to the trade.)

The current lack of e-book data helps no-one but Amazon. Only this week the internet company announced that 15 of its top 100 best-selling Kindle books of 2012 were written by independent (i.e. self-published) authors and published using Kindle Direct Publishing: according to Amazon 12 authors have sold in excess of 100,000 copies. One would think from Amazon's publicity that it was the only game in town. But judging by our top 50 list, and other figures supplied privately, there are many traditionally published writers selling far more, in e-book alone. When you include print sales the list grows to beyond 200.

Amazon's own bestselling KPD bestseller list contains titles that I now know have sold far fewer copies that e-books published by publishing companies such as Hachette and Simon & Schuster. In fact there are books I've not even heard of that have sold more copies than those books feted over the year by Amazon. I don't write this to undermine those self-published writers or their hits, in fact I greatly admire how they've seized the opportunities open to them and given publishers a bloody nose, and in some cases managed to earn a living publishing direct to the consumer. But readers deserve more. Amazon should be promoting the most popular titles available, not just those titles that serve its business aims.

There is a wider argument too. As I wrote in my Leader article in this week's Bookseller for years we’ve been labouring under the assumption that books were somehow in decline, that reading, particularly of traditionally published books, was going out of fashion—pushed out by smartphones, iPads, computer games and, of course, the digital slush-pile. But the aggregate numbers we have been able to gather this week, and which we hope to build on in the weeks and months ahead, show a different picture. By no means the complete picture, but a better one than we've previously had access to, and an encouraging one both for authors and their publishers.

You'll need to a subscriber to The Bookseller to see the full chart and read the analysis, which is available on theBookseller.com.

Selected titles from The Bookseller's Top 50 books of the year

Pos Title Author Publisher Print volume E-book volume Print + E-book

Fifty Shades of Grey James, E L Cornerstone 4,500,248 1,609,626 6,109,874
4 The Hunger Games Collins, Suzanne Scholastic 851,066 405,000 1,256,066
7 Bared to You Day, Sylvia Penguin 635,170 302,000 937,170
12 The Casual Vacancy Rowling, J K Little, Brown 394,754 59,413 454,167
13 Is it Just Me? Hart, Miranda Hodder & Stoughton 382,807 23,964 406,771
14 Before I Go to Sleep Watson, S J Transworld 362,177 286,740 648,917
17 War Horse Morpurgo, Michael Egmont 339,436 121,652 461,088
18 Call the Midwife Worth, Jennifer Orion 324,798 84,287 409,085
48 The Hundred-Year-Old Man . . . Jonasson, Jonas Hesperus 175,531 145,000 320,531

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