As we witness sales of e-books and the popularity of reading digital content rise faster than many of us would have predicted a couple of years ago it is perhaps inevitable that certain parts of our industry are, however unwittingly, holding it back. In one example, our own industry bestseller charts are doing e-books absolutely no favours whatsoever at the moment.
Currently, e-book sales do not register for the book charts. Up until quite recently that hasn't been a huge problem as e-books have only represented a small percentage of total sales. But that is changing, and changing fast, and we are now seeing e-books sell in the tens of thousands, and soon in the hundreds of thousands, without a single one of those sales registering for our industry chart.
This presents a whole host of problems.
It means that the charts do not accurately reflect the reading choices of the nation. When we open our newspaper and see the various Top 10s we cannot be sure that these are the actual bestsellers. There might be a book further down the chart that has been selling well enough as an e-book to break in to the Top 10, but we wouldn't know.
It also creates a dilemma for publishers of brand name authors. We all know how it works—that first week chart position is more important than almost anything else. Getting them to number one in the fiction chart is vital, especially if you have just poached them from a rival publisher. But if e-book sales don't count, then every sale on that format is a sale that won't help you get to number one. At the moment it would actually be in your best interests to suppress sales of the e-book to ensure a higher chart position.
It would be perfectly possible for a book to début at number three despite having sold more copies across all formats than the two books above it. Try explaining that to some über-agent over lunch at The Ivy. I am not sure it would wash.
And it doesn't help traditional retailers either. They make many of their buying decisions, especially when it comes to range, based on the sales performance of previous books or formats. If they cannot see that Book X sold 30,000 print copies and 25,000 e-books then they are not best placed to judge how and where to stock it. And I haven't had time to discuss the impact on retailer market share.
So what's the solution? We need all retailers to share their e-book sales data with the people who compile the charts. Until they do we are in danger of making some poor decisions. It is time for everyone to work together to harness the incredible success of e-books but we cannot do that blindfolded.