A dim view of missing books data

A dim view of missing books data

Got a light?... Just as The Bookseller's Philip Jones was aptly saying that the publishing industry is "looking at its market by candlelight," I was reminded that, in fact, book publishing isn't the only industry suffering this problem:

Amazon never releases sales figures for any of the hardware it builds, but that isn’t stopping others from making their best guesses as to how many units Amazon has sold of the new Fire Phone.

The latest estimate for the Fire Phone, which debuted July 25, pegs sales at no more than 35,000 during its first 25 days on the market — that’s nearly one for every four employees currently working at the e-commerce giant.

Tricia Duryee
Tricia Duryee

That's Tricia Duryee at GeekWire, in Amazon Fire Phone sales estimated at 35,000 — equal to just 25% of employee base. And she's wrestling with one of those no-sales-data instances that end up putting Seattle in a dim light of its own. What can be seen "on the surface," as it were, is not encouraging, as she explains:

Two weeks after Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos unveiled the device, I noticed the Amazon Fire Phone plummeted to the 61st best-selling electronic, far below its fourth-place position on June 18. As of today, it no longer makes the 100 top-selling list at any position.

Duryee does, however, take the trouble to include the Amazonian rationale for its silent treatment when it comes to sales numbers:

Amazon does not talk about sales is because it believes in focusing on a much longer time frame. At least, that’s what Amazon Kindle VP Ian Freed implied in an interview following the June 18 unveiling. He told GeekWire: “We are in this as like we would be in any multi-year, multi-decade business. That’s the way Amazon thinks about things.”

Yes, understood and even appreciated, the long view peculiar to the way Amazon's success has been built. But satisfying or helpful? Not when you're left with guesswork and missing detail while trying to understand and evaluate an industry.

Chris McCrudden
Chris McCrudden

Midas PR's Chris McCrudden touches on the reportage issue with Amazon, as well, in his The profit margin of error piece at Medium, writing on how Amazon reports its numbers to market:

It breaks its revenues down into three general buckets: media, merchandise and other. This makes it difficult to determine which operations make and lose money for Amazon. We just have to assume that some bits of Amazon are crazily profitable, but that it uses these profits to subsidise new ventures as they mature and distract attention from those initiatives that don’t catch fire — like the Fire Phone, for example.

Bad lighting - on output as well as sales

As we've known for some time, the lack of publishing-platform data from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other major retailers in books is compounded by the rise of self-publishing and an erratic use of the ISBN by many entrepreneurial authors.

To say this is not to argue for a kind of native goodness for the ISBN, the International Standard Book Number. Nor is it to side with or against one of the in-country agencies appointed by the international body to sell and/or distribute the identifier. (In some countries, cultural ministries handle the cost of ISBNs. In others, they are sold by commercial bodies licensed by the International ISBN Agency.) Nor is it to argue that the price is right (it isn't) for single authors who have to buy ISBNs at far higher rates than publishers, who can get them (for a dollar apiece in the US, on a buy of 1,000 of them at a time).

The administration and costs of the ISBN are not at issue; the effect of having no way to track some products in publishing's marketplace is the issue.

When the only internationally recognised and tracked identifier is not in place on a book, it's not "visible" to researchers, so the full size of the marketplace and analysis of its action is hobbled by incomplete counts. In the States, Bowker representatives nowadays tend to talk of counting "active ISBNs" rather than just saying "books," because it's understood that they may be missing many books that aren't tagged with ISBNs.

That, combined with lack of reported sales data, means it's very hard to get a clear picture of industry activity, although corporations are fully within their rights to withhold sales data as proprietary information.

Thad McIlroy
Thad McIlroy

The Canadian consultant Thad McIlroy last spring was looking at trying to quantify the kind of output growth rates of books in the marketplace. In How Amazon Destroyed the Publishing Ecosystem, he recognised the work of iBowker's Laura Dawson (Porter Anderson Meets) n bringing forward some numbers that have since been updated. As he wrote then, ISBNs aren't in place on many self-published works "because they’re expensive to obtain in small quantities and many self-publishers perceive little or no value in them. So when you add in the 'non-ISBN”' self-publishing rate the total titles published is even higher. "

Just last month in New York City, Dawson spoke to a session at the Writer's Digest Annual Conference. We reported some of her recent statistics here at The FutureBook. (Her references to the "Books in Print" database does not, in fact, refer only to physical print copies but to everything actively tagged so that Bowker's researchers can track it. A more accurate, if mundane, title might be "Books With Active ISBNs"):

  • In 1999, Bowker could identify roughly 900,000 books it its "Books in Print" database. In 2013? -- Bowker saw 28 million titles there.
  • In 2006, "Books in Print" listed 65,000 publishers. In 2013? -- It listed some 517,000 publishers.
  • Today, "Books in Print" can tally roughly 9 million authors -- yes, 9 million -- in its scans.

As McIlroy and many others have been asking, how much more content and how many more publishers and authors are out there? We can't tell.

Sold on sales data

And when it comes to sales data, one author who has been tracking it regularly in his Author Earnings programme, Hugh Howey, recently made a strong appeal for more, from the standpoint of what an author could do with better information.

Hugh Howey
Hugh Howey

Excerpted from his Stuff I Want to Know post, here is a partial, bulleted list of what he's wishing that Amazon would share with its authors.

I would love to know how many readers borrow a book and then go on to buy a copy of the same book...For Prime members especially, who only get one borrow a month, do they ever love an ebook so much that they decide to own a copy for good? The reason I ask is because authors tend to view a borrow as a lost sale. If you could show me how many duplicate transactions there were like this, it would be super useful in understanding reading and purchasing habits.

I would love to know how far into my books readers get...Do they finish the work? Do most who drop out do so around the same chapter? What about from those who return the ebook? When I return a physical product to Amazon, I am asked to select a reason. Does that information get passed along to the supplier? If so, do the same for us.

I want to get to know my collector readers, the people who love a signed physical copy of an ebook they really enjoyed.

Why can’t I see my lifetime sales anywhere on my dashboard?

Related to the above, why not include print and audio sales as well?

While focused on the author experience of selling on the Amazon platform, of course, Howey's questions reflect well the sorts of analysis and strategy reactions that industry watchers could perform with more nearly complete data.

And we're interested in #FutureChat this week in hearing from members of The FutureBook community about what else is needed in the way of information, what better data on production and sales might offer, not just to authors but also to publishers, their editors and acquisition teams, to marketers and publicity officers, none of whom can see clearly what reader-consumers are up to "by candlelight."

Join us each Friday on Twitter for our weekly #FutureChat: 4 p.m. London time, 11 a.m. New York time, 8 a.m. Los Angeles, 5 p.m. Berlin, 3 p.m. GMT.


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