The report of ebooks’ death was an exaggeration

Several times a year we’re told that ebooks are dead, that they were a passing craze and the craze is over.

Just before Christmas, a large UK book chain trumpeted the news of a slump in the sales of e-readers. ‘People are going back to print,’ enthused the commenters. On the Mad Genius blog, Cedar Anderson had a terse response.

I’ve got two words for that. One I won’t say, I’m a lady. But as a kid on a farm, I stepped in it a few times.

The other word? Tablets. Well, and phones, but really it’s the same thing.

And we simply do not have the data on how many apps have been downloaded so that people can read on tablets or phones. We have four people at my house this weekend. Three of us have Kindles. Three of us have iPads. Three of us have laptops. Two of us have desktops. Three of us have smartphones. Different combinations of technology, but every device that isn’t an ereader has an ereader app.

Similarly, we do not have accurate data on how many print books are sold.

Kristin Kathryn Rusch, in a thoughtful blog about her own experience in trying to establish hard data about the sale of her own books says:

In other words, all of traditional publishing from the introduction of the returns system in the 1930s to the early part of this century was based on educated guesses by the sales department in consultation with editorial. Not based on actual numbers. Not based on real sales figures. Not based on any kind of fact-based system at all.

The traditional publishing industry is in transition because it’s gotten gobbled up by international conglomerates who need real numbers for their own internal reports. Digital book and online sales actually allow for real numbers. Since the American Booksellers Association has taught independent booksellers how to manage their inventory (at the ABA’s Winter Institute), those booksellers have lowered their returns to a maximum of 25%.

So the traditional publishing data is becoming solid, but it’s not there yet. And because so many people in traditional publishing—particularly those in its upper echelons—have been in the business as long as I have, they’re a lot more accepting of wishy-washy numbers and fake statistics. Reports that have lovely graphics and percentages that seem real are still the norm in this industry, rather than studies based on real methodology. That’s in the process of changing, but it hasn’t yet changed.

A 2009 report from UNESCO says:

The lack of reliable – or even broadly realistic – data and analysis on the world’s book culture and publishing markets has been deplored time and again. Yet, the gap has not been bridged.

Nor are the ebook sales reports from traditional sources without their flaws, as the Author Earnings report for January 2015 says:

Why do [the industry news sites] continue to insist that indie self-published ebooks only make up a tiny share of the market, and cannot possibly account for a significant volume of sales?

The answer is simple. Bad data.

All of these industry pundits rely on three officially-recognized sources of ebook market size estimates and projections: AAP/BISG BookStats, AAP StatShot, and now Nielsen PubTrack.

Each of these sources arrives at their ebook market-size estimates by collecting self-reported data from a small subset of participating publishers (1,919 for BookStats, 1,200 for StatShot, 30 for PubTrack) and then using average per-title sales numbers from those participating publishers to project the size of the entire ebook market. They do this by multiplying those average per-title sales numbers by the number of active ebook ISBNs (International Standard Book Numbers) purchased from Bowker by the many tens of thousands of non-participating publishers and indie self-published authors.

But these figures don’t count ebooks with an ISBNs  from other sources (I get mine from the New Zealand National Library) or with no ISBN. Author Earnings reports that 30% of ebooks on Amazon do not have an ISBN, so Amazon ebook sales are at least 30% larger than counted in industry statistics. And Amazon is by far the biggest seller of ebooks.

Here’s the Author Earnings analysis of Amazon sales:


The shonkiness of the data, and the counter evidence freely available, does not prevent print advocates from producing superbly crafted infographics to support their case that ereading has plateaued and that print book sales are up. (It is a nice infographic though, isn’t it? Even if the data is seriously flawed?)

I have loved books my whole life, and I adore the smell of print. But nowadays, I only purchase reference books in print. For fiction, I go ebook all the way. I have a Kindle, and I have both iBooks and Kindle Reader on my iPad. When I travel, I can take a fully recharged Kindle with 600 or more books on it, and read it for five days without recharging. The iPad needs recharging more often, but lets me also keep up with emails and Facebook, take notes in meetings, and write blog posts. What’s not to like?


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