Ebooks Outsell Print! Putting Headlines in Context

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Widely-discussed book news this week: Amazon UK’s report that ebook sales have outstripped the sales of all print formats combined.

According to unaudited figures released by [Amazon UK] on Monday, since the start of 2012, for every 100 hardback and paperback book sold on its site, customers downloaded 114 ebooks.

This generated many headlines announcing that Ebooks Beat Print!, along with the usual “Print is dead!” commentary (regretful or jubilant, according to bias). However, Amazon is famous for reporting statistics without providing the details necessary to fully evaluate them–just as the media is famous for disseminating a juicy sound bite even if it doesn’t really represent the actual news story. Herewith, a bit of context.

- The figures are unaudited. According to The Guardian, “Amazon has refused to release audited figures for its digital book sales, something it does for printed books. It told the Guardian that the company would not discuss future policy on the matter.”

- Lost in many of the headlines: the report comes from Amazon UK, not Amazon overall. I admit this is kind of a bagatelle, especially since Amazon US reported similar news back in 2011–but still, accuracy is important. Call me a pedant.

- I can’t help wondering how much of a sales bump was provided by the phenomenal popularity of the tiresomely over-hyped 50 Shades trilogy.

- Free ebooks were excluded from Amazon’s calculations, which is good…but how many of the ebooks were Kindle exclusives, available only at Amazon? Even if it’s only a small percentage of the whole, the inclusion of books that can be bought nowhere else would tend to skew the figures.

- Amazon has the most popular single ebook reading device (Kindle owned about 40% of the market as of the end of 2011) and an even more commanding chunk of the ebook market (around 60% right now, according to most sources). Beyond the still-rapidly-growing enthusiasm for ebooks, these factors certainly contributed to ebook sales dominance at Amazon.

- Amazon is the world’s major vendor of ebooks…but it’s just one of many vendors of print books. In the USA, for instance, ebooks had become “the single dominant format in adult fiction sales” by the end of 2011–but as of January 2012, the sale of print formats was still more than triple that of ebooks across all trade categories.

- Last but not least, for those who fear that print is dead, or wish it had died some time ago, I came across an interesting article this week about the Book Industry Study Group’s ongoing survey of consumers’ attitudes toward ebooks. The latest figures from this survey reveal that print is seeing gains as ebook consumers diversify their buying habits.

The percentage of e-book consumers who “exclusively or mostly” purchased book content in e-book format decreased from nearly 70% in August 2011 to 60% in May 2012…During the same period, the percentage of survey respondents who had no preference for either e-book or print formats, or who bought some genres in e-book format and others in print, rose from 25% to 34%.

This suggests that, for the moment, we’re heading toward a hybrid market in which ebooks are just one more book format for consumers to choose from–not the doom of print, nor a cause célèbre, but simply another container for text. Of course, we’re still on the cusp of a paradigm shift, so no one can say what may happen in the far future. But with that caveat, I think print books and ebooks will co-exist relatively peaceably for some time to come…Amazon statistics notwithstanding.

5 Responses

  1. Lisa Spangenberg

    If you look at the history of the book, and of publishing, you see the same sorts of predictions for each major change, including the demise of the previous format. You’ll see this regarding the birth of early books, the ones bibliographers classify as incunabula that are half-way between printed codes books, and hand-illuminated mss., (and even in the switch from vellum to paper) and you’ll see it when paperbacks started to become a standard offering in the early 1900s. There were even cries of outrage when Penguin began publishing “classic literature” in affordable cheaply printed but conveniently sized paperbacks. There is, I think, both a generational divide, and a social class divide, in each of these “revolutions” that are really technological modifications of the text container we call a book.

  2. Andrew Burt

    My crystal ball continues to suggest that ebooks will largely replace print by 2025 (if not well before; as I’ve said since the early 2000s, even back when ebooks where 0.1% of sales and many folks said nawww, they’ll never catch on at all). The reasoning, and the mathematical curve-fitting analysis of the adoption rate S-curve, remain the same.

    Print will probably continue as a niche, says my magic 8-ball, and won’t vanish entirely (even though new releases on VHS tape and 33rpm LPs largely have).

    But the factors working against print aren’t in its favor: The cost of materials (paper isn’t getting cheaper), the cost of shipping (fuel isn’t getting cheaper), the dent that the returns system puts into print but not electronic editions(plus the unpredictability of it, which doens’t play well with financially risk-averse, bottom-line oriented publishers, i.e., all the major ones), the improvement of technology (e-reader technology, e-ink, e-paper, etc. will only get better, to there point where one might envision a codex bound volume of 300 paper-thin sheets of e-paper), network access will only get better worldwide (so one can grab a book any time), the ability to take more risks on content with ebooks because of the lower production costs, the “getting comfortable with change” factor that allows more people to accept a new thing is only in favor of ebooks, surveys show that very few people actively dislike e-readers once they’ve tried them, and so on.

    I can’t offhand think of any tailwinds that are working in favor of print, just tailwinds for ebooks and headwinds for print.

    Just because today ebooks are roughly the same order of magnitude as print sales is no indication we’ve reached any kind of steady state. (Remember than when ebooks were 0.1% of sales many pundits said -that- was the steady state.) The product adoption “S-curve” is the thing to watch. When it starts to really flatten out (i.e. year-over-year ebook sales are flat), -then- we’ll know we’ve found equilibrium. However, year-over-year ebook sales are still growing at a huge rate. The growth rate will have to start slowing down a lot before it can plateau, and we don’t even see it slowing down much yet. That suggests we’re still in the early-middle to maybe middlish part of the S-curve. The left half the S-curve is more or less a mirror of the right half, so we can surmise that ebooks still have a lot of market share to gain still ahead of them, and will gain it within a few years. Based on the S-curve and my own curve-fitting to it, I would not be surprised to see the end result being that print captures 10% or less of sales.

    It’s worth pointing out that the AAP’s data for ebook sales vs. print paint a generally similar picture (the AAP reported in June that YTD ebook sales surpassed hardcover sales; and are basically even with paperback sales – $282M ebook, $230M hardcover, $300M paperback, $99M mmbp; FYI, it’s their data I base my analyses on), so it’s not just specific to Amazon, even though Amazon sees the harbingers first. So, right, ebooks have not yet overtaken all print formats, but one train is accelerating rapidly and the other train is slowing down, so if the trends continue (and there’s no apparent reason they shouldn’t), ebooks will overtake all print sales fairly soon, and continue pulling ahead.

    Some folks may not -like- what the data show the trend is and may wish it otherwise, but from the standpoint of the cold equations, it will be what it will be. Authors would be wise to plan for the (strong) possibility that ebooks will be the primary form of books within a few years.

    (And thus, for example, look to get the best deal one can on electronic rights, and examine offers from publishers not in light of today’s ebook sales figures, but also, e.g., in light of a scenario where ebook sales might be 90%+ of sales.)

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  4. Guy Stewart

    While the data are interesting and I have no doubt that ebooks will overtake paper books HERE, if it were ever considered, the data would most likely show that WORLD distribution of ereaders and paper books is skewed toward technological peak cultures and doesn’t consider that people in countries other than TPCs read also. No ereader in any format is readily available outside of typically technophillic cities — nor do the units we possess have a battery that only has to be charged once every 10,000 hours of use or could withstand drought conditions, being laid on the pounded dirt floor of a hut, dropped into an ocean over the edge of an outrigger canoe or survive the monsoon season in Indonesia. A technocentric literacy view of the readers of Earth is starting to bother me!

  5. Ken M

    People like to own and share what they buy – I hear this regularly when the discussion of ebooks arises. And the arbitrary erase of ereader material is a factor buyers consider. Note that those who purchase a majority of titles in eformat have backed away some.