Don’t believe everything you read – e-books are on the rise

Don’t believe everything you read – e-books are on the rise

With e-books recently being deemed ‘stupid’ by Arnoud Nourry, chief executive of Hachette Livre, and many articles in the last year claiming a ‘plunge’ in e-book sales and a resurgent in print, I think it is time to question exactly where the data for those articles comes from, and to question how much truth there is behind those statements.

It is fantastic that print publishing is seeing a resurgence, but why does it have to be at the expense of e-book publishing? Why are both formats not celebrated together? Surely every sale of a book should be celebrated, as should a general increase in reading on all formats. It seems that some publishers, particularly some of those working at the heads of the larger publishing houses are still eager to see e-books fail, and seem almost gleeful when they report that their e-book sales are stalling. It is time to stop looking down your nose at e-books and start looking to the future, because, like it or not, e-books are here to stay – just as much as paper books are. More and more readers are switching to e-books every day, or, like me, buying in both print and digital format, so, if your readers are embracing e-books, why wouldn’t you as a publisher?

I’ve worked in digital publishing for five years – first as the publishing director for Endeavour Press, and more recently as the co-founder of digital-first publisher, Sapere Books, and over the past few years I have been increasingly frustrated and annoyed by what seems to be the agenda of some publishers to convince us that e-books are failing, plateauing and being pushed back by a resurgence in print publishing. 

The truth is that the only data being used to ‘prove’ that e-book sales are slowing down is from the traditional publishers, who have been quite slow to get up to speed with the ‘e-book revolution’. Though many of the major publishers have improved dramatically in the way they market and sell digital books, they are not comparing their sales with the sales of independent publishers and self-published authors, who are often much more proficient and successful at selling e-books. 

Unfortunately, we do not have full access to this sales data, as the majority of these smaller e-book publishers have not sent their sales data into Nielsen, and so are not included in the general analysis of the e-book market. For example, the weekly round-up of the e-book sales ranking provided by The Bookseller only comes from a handful of publishers: PRH UK, Hachette, HarperCollins, Pan Macmillan, Bloomsbury, Simon & Schuster and Bonnier. I decided to take a look at the data on Amazon’s top 100 bestselling Kindle chart (currently the largest seller of e-books, though it would be interesting to do a similar study for the charts on Kobo, iBooks and Google) to see how these publishers rank in the charts, and whether other publishers may be dominating e-book sales.

The top 100, at the time of writing, did include 17 books from PRH, 16 from Hachette and nine from HarperCollins, but Pan Macmillan only placed two titles, Bonnier merely one, and Bloomsbury and Simon & Schuster failed to feature at all. On the other hand, Amazon Publishing (unsurprisingly) had the most books in the top 100 with 19 titles charting, independent publisher Joffe had an impressive 12 titles, JK Rowling’s Pottermore publishing imprint had four, and self-published authors took up 12 slots.

The Bookseller weekly e-book charts also only include books priced above £2 and from the study I looked at, only 36 books in the top 100 were priced higher than £2. This means that nearly two thirds of the charting titles would be ineligible to feature in the published weekly e-book ranking, again skewing the data more towards traditional publishing, as the majority of higher-priced e-books come from those publishers, while independent publishers and self-published authors, particularly those which are digital-only or digital-first, tend to price their e-books lower.

This article is not meant as a defence of e-books to the detriment of print publishing. It is merely meant to show that anything written about e-book sales and the strength of the e-book market in the UK should be taken with a pinch of salt. The data being used for these studies is at best incomplete, and at worst highly-skewed towards those who are simply not as good at selling e-books as other publishers are.