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.