Last week FutureBook asked, how big is the self-publishing market? The simple answer is that only Amazon knows. The more complex answer is that it is big enough - and growing.
Porter Anderson and I used various approaches. We asked some of the stakeholders for their estimates, and then ran an open survey to see if the indie hive-mind would coalesce around some numbers. Separately, as part of a wider piece on how traditional publishing was weathering the digital storm, consultant Mike Shatzkin offered his own number.
To review our coverage:
Did we expect consensus? No. Did we expect such wide divergence? Perhaps, not.
There were 32 responses to the survey: an indication in itself that however much heat is generated online by self-publishing, when you ask for facts and figures the dance floor clears. There were 14 responses about the US, 18 focused on the UK.
But not everyone answered each question. Of the seven who were prepared to respond to the question “What is your estimate for the market size of self-published e-books in the US by value in 2014?” the majority plumped for a figure of more than $300m, with one heading way north into the greater than $1bn territory. However, 2 respondents also clicked the less than $50m box.
We also asked for methodology: and received two answers. Here is the best one: “Market for self-pub books -- maybe 5 percent of overall book sales. Of this, I think digital is 80 percent, print 20 percent. Methodology? Hmm. In spite of what we hear in the (self-pub) media, I don't think self-published books have gained broad credibility. Most people still buy what's on the shelves (virtual or otherwise) at the major retailers. What gains out attention via marketing is still mostly trad pub. Also, I know a lot of readers -- everyone I know is a reader. They are reading 99.9% trad pub books. There is still a stigma to self-pub. People are strapped for time. They're reading what's tried and true: trad pub. Self-published titles are readily available via ebook -- I think the self-pub market is 80% digital for this reason. Print is *a lot* more work. And distribution is a problem.”
The assessment of the UK self-publishing market was not much different. Of the eight responses to the question “What is your estimate for the market size of self-published e-books in the UK by value in 2014?” the majority opted for a figure higher than £50m, but no-one went above £150m (the UK market for indie published books may be exploding, but it has yet to explode out of all proportion). Three respondents plumped for a figure of £10m or below.
On methodology there was a degree of consensus: “Similar response to US market. On writers forums, it seems eBooks are popular. Ease of purchase and lack of postage costs may play a role.”
And how did the experts fare? Equally falteringly.
Nielsen’s estimate for UK sales was £58m (including print, and Amazon Publishing). It measures this by asking consumers what books they have bought, and then checking who publishes them. Though as it notes, there are many blurred lines between traditional and self-published.
Mine was £70m, e-book only and excluding Amazon Publishing.
The agent (and former publisher) Toby Mundy proffered £175m.
In the US there were more estimates, also pleasingly different.
The Author Earnings combo of Data Guy and Hugh Howey said that in dollar terms, US consumers spent $459m on indie titles in 2014.
Draft2Digital's Dan Wood estimated the US market self-publishing market to be around $690m.
Smashwords' Mark Coker posited that the net revenue to indies, excluding audiobooks, is maybe around $430m. “Wild wild guess.”
Meanwhile, over at Shatzkin’s blog, Mike asked a “knowledgeable indie author friend” what the consumer dollar volume was for indies last year. The indie author reckoned it at $459m. The assumption here being that this particular indie author pays a lot of attention to the work of Data Guy and Howey.
So the reality is that nobody really knows, and each estimate (though interesting in terms of methodology) is as flawed as the next one. Data Guy put it best to Porter in making the case for his own analysis: “It's the classic parable of the three blind men and the elephant: each can only describe the part they are touching. But by pooling their knowledge, they can ‘see’ the whole beast.”
Helpfully, he nails the central issue. Those blind fondlers may be able to 'see' it but they won't know they are right until someone comes along to verify their assessment. We won't know how big this market is until Amazon tells us.
There are a few things I would conclude from this:
1) Knowing what we don’t know is important: as is accepting that the positions we take as a result should not be fixed. Shatzkin’s blog is a good example of this. Working through the available data he argues. “Since then, despite Amazon Publishing’s continued growth (primarily in genres, not general trade) and what appears to be the continued growth in self-publishing have not really threatened the legacy publishing business. As long as the big authors don’t abandon the publishers, they’re safe. And as long as there is a complex demand chain for publishers to manage and service to pull in the revenue, they probably won’t.” There are so many caveats here (and in the whole piece) that Shatzkin is openly admitting that his view is subject to change - or market movements. For example, “Over the long run, things will almost certainly change in very big ways because of the inexorable forces eroding publisher margins described above.” Yet such nuance is lost on the commentators on his own blog, and those on the Passive Voice.
2) Even at the larger end of these numbers the impact of self-publishing on traditional publishing looks to be over-hyped (at least on social media). I remember one executive (who in a previous role had engaged heavily with the self-publishing community) telling me that at the big publisher they were now working at the conversation around self-publishing “simply does not register”. What does matter to them is how the KDP has become a breeding and testing ground for new authors. They watch the charts like hawks, but not because they see KDP disrupting their world, but because it actively helps them expand their hegemony.
3) They are wrong not to pay attention to this wider narrative. Self-publishing may still feel marginal in terms of overall business right now, but in certain genres it is already highly visible and highly influential. You only need to see the comments that followed John Scalzi’s recent publishing deal to see how vocal this community has become. Most important, we are at the beginning of this: e-reading is in its infancy, as is self-publishing (as we know it today, and in contrast to vanity publishing which has been around for decades). I don’t need to read The Innovator’s Dilemma, as Hugh Howey advises Shatzkin to do, to see where the disruption is coming from: it is visible. Check out, for instance, how Amazon has just redrawn how it will pay authors participating in its Kindle Unlimited subscription scheme. To be paid by page read is a revolution. A boon for serial writers, a nightmare for poets.
Why is this important? How we quantify this dark matter going forwards will be a key consideration not just for traditional publishers, retailers, investors and industry observers - but perhaps most important of all for writers. Authors will have tough decisions to take going forward, and are ill-served by the present data arrangements.
Ironically, publishing may be benefit from not having to know how big the black hole is. The great fear among traditional publishers is not the mass publishing direct to Kindle, but that their big name authors will take their business away. As Shatzkin note, “the big threat to publishers probably ended when Larry Kirshbaum’s efforts to get big name mainstream authors to leave legacy publishing in some numbers for Amazon failed”. Not only is there a business cost to this, but also a reputational one. The damage done would be incalculable (though in fairness, Bloomsbury has shown that there is life in a backlist even after an author has gone). And incidentally, I don’t think this threat is over.
On the Passive Guy website thriller writer Lee Child gave one of the most telling of comments in response to Shatzkin’s blog. “Whichever numbers you choose to believe, e-reading gets a minority of eyeball time in a couple of major markets, and less than that in a handful of others. It’s a small fishbowl. Even with the spectacular 70% return, it’s a losing proposition for the one-percenters. So the disruptors have hard work ahead – they need to drag e-reading acceptance into an overwhelming global majority, without the one-percenters to help. If they manage it, then we’ll jump ship, probably.”
Is that enough of a carrot to dangle in front of Amazon that will see the giant tech group release its e-book sales data? Is it a big enough hint to traditional publishers that what seems fixed now may not be forever? Time will tell.