AuthorEarnings' winter report -- ISBN On Ice!

AuthorEarnings' winter report -- ISBN On Ice!


Everything's Coming Up Indie. Right? 

As slippery as the business of publishing-industry statistics is, the author Hugh Howey and his unnamed associate referred to as Data Guy have now given us a year of reports.

This is a good thing. Despite Howey's detractors and some of their misgivings, the AuthorEarnings series of interpretive essays have created a viable second opinion, where once the industry! the industry! had only its own interpretations of its size, its scope, and its progress based on market action reported by its players. This body of work represents the first systematically prepared and consistently presented alternative views we've had.

And in the new précis just released this week -- the January 2015 Author Earnings Report -- Howey does what any good purveyor of controversial material does: he slides the sizzle out onto the ice first.

As the lights go down, Howey has six fine drum-rolling flashes to offer as an executive summary. I quote him:

  1. AuthorEarnings reports analyze detailed title-level data on 33% of all daily ebook sales in the U.S..
  2. 30% of the ebooks being purchased in the U.S.. do not use ISBN numbers and are invisible to the industry’s official market surveys and reports; all the ISBN-based estimates of market share reported by Bowker, AAP, BISG, and Nielsen are wildly wrong.
  3. 33% of all paid ebook unit sales on are indie self-published ebooks.
  4. 20% of all consumer dollars spent on ebooks on are being spent on indie self-published ebooks.
  5. 40% of all dollars earned by authors from ebooks on are earned by indie self-published ebooks.
  6. In mid-year 2014, indie-published authors as a cohort began taking home the lion’s share (40%) of all ebook author earnings generated on while authors published by all of the Big Five publishers combined slipped into second place at 35%.

Numbers 3, 4, 5 and 6 represent some very knees-up numbers for the self-publishing sector.

And Howey arrives this time with some additional high-level observations, including:

The increasing prevalence of lower-priced Big Five titles has had no measurable effect on the Big Five’s share of titles on Amazon’s daily-sales-based ebook bestseller lists.


The return to agency pricing by two of the Big Five has had no measurable effect on the Big Five’s share of titles on Amazon’s daily-sales-based ebook bestseller lists.

What of course happens as you read further is that you begin to sense that the AuthorEarnings protocol is unable to produce negative news for the self-publishing community. Here, for example, is a look at the 12 months of quarterly snapshots, which Howey understands as "the continued progressive growth of indie market share at the expense of traditionally published ebooks." 

Cheer after cheer, the research's indications of self-publishing's wide presence lead Howey to approach the ISBN question by asking "If one-third of all ebooks purchased in the US are now obviously and verifiably self-published, why do publishing industry news outlets and pundits continue to claim otherwise?"

His answer; bad data -- which, in fact, may simply not show those pundits what he has seen in his own calculations. But he doesn't say why the data is bad, although we know, don't we? Well, of course we do.

The data is bad because: Amazon still declines to report ebook sales data as a matter of corporate choice. [Though they do report sales of physical books through Nielsen BookScan].

Howey (pictured) talks of pundits relying on BookStats, StatShot and Nielsen's PubTrack. He goes to impressive length to explain how and why these are, as we know, not adequately representative of the scene. No device or analytical regime can be: because Amazon is holding its sales data secret.

Perhaps Howey takes this point as a given, something understood by everyone across the board. 

Early on, he points out that a generally accepted figure for Amazon's control of the US ebook market is 67 percent. 

Well, gosh, if we get no data on 67 percent of the market, then any attempt to evaluate the market's shape and size will require complex estimates and blind spots. And we know that. This is a reason for producing AuthorEarnings, and for the formulas used by industry players in their own calculations. If Amazon reported its data, his and Data Guy's spider-craft wouldn't be needed.

And as we come to the ISBN, it's worth noting that even Bowker, the agency that administers the ISBN in the States, frequently refers in its material to how many "published ISBNs" and/or "self-published ISBNs" it can track, not simply to how many books are out there. Bowker's people, in my many talks with them, have shown me that they know all too well about the growing inadequacy of the ISBN.

The ISBN can't tell us how many books there are. That's correct. And Bowker and Nielsen ISBN personnel, as I've reported in the past, will readily say so, on the record to a journalist, as they have said so to me. Howey's concern is that statistical estimates based on the ISBN are "wildly, wildly wrong." And we knew this. Some of us have been writing that for a long time. Here and here and here and here and here and in more places. 

Howey's AuthorEarnings report then goes on to counter what he describes as Bowker's "misleading" claims that most vendors require the identifier, and to establish, per his data, that ISBNs appear to attach to ebooks that do less well that those without them. 

He further demonstrates that his data suggests a dwindling use of the ISBN by small and medium-sized publishers (30 percent of not-Big Five traditional publishers) and in the finale of his study, he finds himself writing in good headline upper- and lowercase: 

When It Comes To Tracking Digital Books, The ISBN Is Officially Dead — It Just Hasn’t Been Buried Yet.

That, of course, is why I headlined a story in October from the Frankfurt Book Fair: Is The ISBN Still Worth Its Barcode? Not only the national ISBN chiefs in the States and the UK spoke with me for that story and for stories here at The Bookseller, on the record (Beat Barblan of Bowker, and Simon Skinner of Nielsen, respectively), but so did Stella Griffiths, who heads the International ISBN Agency. And they recognised that the ISBN is facing a degraded level of usage and the logical dismantling of its effectiveness. No one stonewalled these points during my research in the States and in London.

As you read this report -- which is in the hands of a strong writer whose prose capability many of us admire, of course -- you get the feeling that statistical contortions have been willfully and rather menacingly performed by an awful lot of industry people over the years, even though Howey deftly presents a 2009 article in which the agent Richard Curtis was adamantly questioning the efficacy of the analysis available.

Do the industry's contortions without Amazon's data really look so much more preposterous than scraping data from 120,000 Amazon sales pages with a "spider"? 

You see, Howey's and Data Guy's year-long efforts, welcomed by so many of us, are not without their own weird science, right? They utilise the reports by authors of their writing income levels, for one thing. No mean job, gathering that, either: don't misunderstand, nothing here is meant to belittle Howey and Data Guy's level of commitment, zeal, or effort. Despite the ingenuity of the approach, thought, isn't "wildly, wildly" in the eye of the beholder? To each her own contortions when full data isn't availalable.

What's most interesting here is that Howey doesn't point out -- unless I'm missing it -- that both the arithmetical acrobatics of the traditionalists and the tech-humming scrape-'n'-bake development of the AuthorEarnings programme could all be done away with if Amazon simply reported its sale numbers. 

Holding sales numbers secret as proprietary information is fully legal, certainly. And Amazon is hardly alone in the corporate world in doing this.But when so much of the market's business, as Howey is confirming here, is being conducted on that platform, surely it's clear that no approach -- neither AuthorEarnings nor the traditionally deployed mechanisms he criticises here -- is going to be accurate as long as we must work without that formidable part of the info in hand. 

Shall we, then, go ahead and drive the ISBN/identifier car right on over the cliff? 

  • Will we all be able to count books better with our eyes even more widely shut?
  • Might there be something to be said for trying to devise a more affordable approach to the ISBN -- or even to another identifier propagated retroactively to ISBN-bearing books -- than to fully and wholly and completely abandon all attempts to track and quantify the industry? 
  • If Howey is right that the ISBN is effectively dead, is this good  -- as I've joined him in saying in my own writings -- I may be missing something, but I take no joy in that idea. How is no counting better than some counting? Or is it?

These are hard but worthy questions, whether you tend to "side" with the traditional industry in these debates, with the entrepreneurial independent sector, or simply with the business of books as a whole -- a business struggling to see itself in the digital reality. Even after so extensive an excoriation of the ISBN as Howey supplies us, we're left without the answer to the question of what's wrong with tracking books, quantifying the life of literature in our world?

We're also left without an understanding of why many self-publishing authors will tell you that they see no need to count new titles and their authors at all. What a baffling view that is.

  • Do we not like to know how many films were released in a year?
  • Don't we get off on reports of Super Bowl viewership and how many inches of snow didn't fall on New York City?
  • If the "quantified self" trend puts FitBits and Jawbones on our wrists to count our steps each day, how is it not better to be able to count the robust output of self-publishers than to have those books not trackable as part of a "shadow industry"? 
  • How do  you get that industry out of the "shadow" if  you can't get any light on what it's doing?
  • And don't we finally need the fullness of better data -- Howey's right on that -- to get us that light?

These questions and your input -- feel free to drop us a comment and be counted (!).


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