Unless you slept through yesterday (or for some incomprehensible reason went offline), you probably heard how Amazon won the book wars, summed up so succinctly in this New York Times headline: E-Books Top Hardcovers at Amazon:
Monday was a day for the history books — if those will even exist in the future.
In that time, Amazon said, it sold 143 Kindle books for every 100 hardcover books, including hardcovers for which there is no Kindle edition.
Twitter and the blogosphere were saturated by speculation as to what this meant for the drum of publishing: yet another indication that print was on its deathbed?
The Times quotes one Mr Mike Shatzkin, CEO of the Idea Logical Company, ‘which advises book publishers on digital change’:
“This was a day that was going to come, a day that had to come,” he said. He predicts that within a decade, fewer than 25 percent of all books sold will be print versions.
If I may draw your attention to the operative noun: hardcovers. Hardcovers. As readers, writers and publishers know, hardcovers are generally no longer a viable print option. They’re expensive to produce and there’s not a great demand outside of collectors or fetishists. Hardcover production has been on the decline for some time; most books, in fact, no longer have a hardcover print run, rather, it’s straight to the paperback route.
In view of the general decline of the hardcover format, ebooks vs hardcovers is a peculiar comparison. Some specificity would be appreciated (from a company that won’t reveal exact numbers of Kindles sold): does Amazon mean ebooks outsold books available in multi-format – with a paperback, hardcover and ebook version?
As Marion Maneker at Slate’s The Big Money brazenly asks, ‘Here’s a riddle for you: At what point will Amazon (AMZN) have to quit being so coy with its sales figures of Kindle editions and start offering the world real information?’
Or from Publishers Weekly: ‘In Amazon’s ongoing effort to show how popular the Kindle and e-books are without giving away real numbers the company has released a batch of new statistics about the two products ahead of its second quarter earnings report set for Thursday.’ Publishers Weekly should know about such things. They track sales in the industry and have a list detailing 2009 hardcover sales in the US, and a plethora of other US publishing and sales stats.
There is a flurry about what these Amazonian numbers mean for the print and electronic book industries but this number – 100 hardcovers for every 143 Kindle books – is a number worth analysing to determine what the concrete figure means, to both readers and publishers. While the figure indicates ebook sales and popularity are increasing, a breakdown of the market and Amazon’s sales would be more constructive and honest.
Wouldn’t children’s books, for instance, be one of the few areas that would still be frequently selling in hardcover? To date, not many children’s books have electronic counterparts. Disney, Dr Seuss and other bestsellers such as the Spiderwick Chronicles are produced as ebooks, or as an interactive iPad app – see Alice for the iPad – with Dr Seuss selling for $1.99 and Miss Spider’s Tea Party, $9.99. But the publishers are under no illusions when it comes to this market: how many parents are willing to spend $499 for their child to own an iPad?
Publishers Weekly offers a breakdown of the children’s ebook/app financials:
For now, on a $10 e-book or app sale, Apple gets $3 and the publishers and authors split the $7. The author typically gets 25% of that $7—so $1.25. But that’s on a $10 app, such as Miss Spider’s Tea Party. On a $1.99 app, such as Gertrude McFuzz, the economics are worse. Traditional hardcover picture books sell for $15 to $18, and authors might get a 10% royalty based on the retail price—$1.50 for a $15 hardcover book. Paperback children’s books typically sell for $6.99 to $7.99 and give authors an 8% royalty based on retail price. The bottom line: “The higher the price of the app goes, the more comparable it gets to traditional publishing,” says Richter.
So we can assume that children’s books, still commonly printed in hardcover, are not selling electronically. How about other hardcover books? Cookbooks, art books, coffee table books all immediately come to mind. How many of these are selling in hardcover format? More than likely, the answer is few, if any. It’s similar to comparing the sale of otters to the sale of monkeys. It isn’t like comparing types of otters, but entirely different species.
David Carnoy over at CNET concludes:
I’d like to see gross revenue from e-books vs. gross revenue from hardcovers. Until recently, Amazon was actually losing money on bestsellers that it sold for $9.99 when their wholesale price from publishers was around $12 or more. Now that the publishing industry has shifted to an “agency” model, Amazon is taking a 30 percent cut, but the prices of many e-book titles are higher, possibly squelching demand. Amazon hasn’t told us yet whether the higher prices have had any impact on sales. Most Kindle users I talk to say they are buying fewer traditionally published Kindle titles because many cost over $9.99.
In the US, ebooks are still a small percentage of book market; in Australia, it’s nigh impossible to have a library on your Kindle, unless you’re only desirous of bestsellers and out of copyright texts.
If indeed ebooks are outselling hardcovers (and soon-to-be, by implication, print books), how many are self-published books? Or genre? Carnoy asks:
Just how many e-books sold are self-published titles? The Kindle Store is literally flooded with self-published titles and many of them sell between 99 cents and $3.99. Some self-published authors are doing very well because they’ve written a decent book or books that are priced cheaply. Cheap sells these days.
Certain genres are doing very well on the Kindle. Romance novels, for instance. These titles are typically very big in paperback not hardcover. According to Wikipedia, in 2004, romance novels made up 54 percent of all paperbacks sold.
If Amazon isn’t just counting books available in multi-format for their data, then this figure of ‘143 Kindle books for every 100 hardcover books’ is a broad comparison, which means all those self-published ebooks are being measured against hardcover books sold by big publishers. This is not even remotely an analogous statistic; why would big publishers want to enter that market?
Maneker (The Big Money) suggests that these figures are significant in terms of recognition of the digital-medium book, yet, ‘are hardcover sales falling or remaining the same?’ ‘Amazon has played its cards very well,’ she goes on, ‘but because it’s being so coy, we have to assume that the numbers are not as good as they might be when reported simply as, well, numbers.’
The overall e-book market is still a 90-pound weakling next to the Asiatic elephant of print publishing. According to a report from Publisher’s Weekly last year, hardback sales were projected to be about $4.4 billion in 2009 (including both adult and children’s titles), while paperbacks were expected to generate $5.1 billion in revenue, audiobooks $218 million, and e-books just $81 million — less than 1 percent of the print equivalents. That’s not even counting textbooks, Bibles and professional books — with those included, Publisher’s Weekly estimated the overall book market at $35 billion in 2009.
It’s not just the volume of ebooks moved; it’s how much the volume moved for. Publishers could potentially sell more ebooks but, at this stage of the game, it could and would be subsidised by loss of profits, or something else. Wired reminds us ‘Amazon’s e-book crusade is also helped by the fact that hardcover books cost $26 on average, while Kindle books are far less. More than 510,000 of the titles in Amazon’s e-book catalog cost $10 or less.’
Carolyn Kellogg at the LA Times queries Amazon’s data transparency:
In December and January, industry watchers took note of the fact that Amazon.com’s bestseller list was full of free books; in May, the company split the list into “Top 100 Paid” and “Top 100 Free.” Today’s figures exclude free books for the Kindle.
However, Amazon.com continues to emphasize the price differential. Its press release points out that of 630,000 not-free ebooks available for the Kindle, “Over 510,000 of these books are $9.99 or less.”
It’s impressive that Charlaine Harris (author of the Sookie Stackhouse mysteries, the basis of the television series “True Blood”), Stephenie “Twilight” Meyer, James Patterson (author of the Alex Cross series and others), romance maven Nora Roberts and Stieg “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” Larsson have each sold 500,000 books for the Kindle.
But what isn’t being said is that these aren’t necessarily new books; most of these authors have an impressive backlist. James Patterson has published almost 40 novels; Nora Roberts' books have been issued and reissued so frequently that it’s almost impossible to tally her published work. Stieg Larsson, who died in 2004, is the underachiever: His popular mystery series consists of only three books.
Though there may have been growth in ebook sales, there’s no certainty or intelligibility as to what this means. These Amazon sales touted as proving a booming ebook market more resemble an attempt to push publishers into converting their catalogues electronically by employing that classic menace: you’re losing money.
Is the boom period of the ebook coming? Perhaps. But CNET’s Carnoy warns, ‘just remember who’s trying to control the narrative here. Amazon has an agenda. It wants to sell e-books. And lots of them.’ Despite evidence and conjecture to the contrary, the American Publishers Association says industry-wide sales of books are up 22% for 2010. Given the push to digital and the clout of companies like Amazon and Apple, these hardcover vs electronic figures make the whole ebook market seem a bit wan. The more illuminating question would be: how are your overall print vs electronic sales?
This piece was originally published at Drum Unleashed.