Measure for measure: the Digital Census since 2009

Measure for measure: the Digital Census since 2009

Last week we launched the latest Digital Census, The Bookseller’s once a year opportunity to take a measure of what the book and digital communities think about this developing landscape.

We first began asking questions about the digital transition back in 2009, when less than half of those who responded said they had ‘ever’ read a book digitally (last year the figure was close to 90%) and just a fifth had ever bought an e-book (last year 75% had). The surveys inform on the remarkable transition that has taken place in this business over the past five years, charting not just the realities of the marketplace but also the perceptions. They show not only how answers we were given have changed, but also how the questions we asked evolved as Amazon’s creeping dominance over all things digital grew (at the expense of Apple), and other companies such as Nook, Google, and Kobo arrived in this space.

Back in 2009 for example, Apple was selected by 52% respondents as the company most likely to become the dominant e-reader player, while interoperability was seen by the majority as the necessary key to unlocking the then still nascent e-book market. The majority reported digital at “less than 10%” of their overall business. But we were an optimistic bunch: by 2025 more than a quarter thought digital sales would become more than 40% of business. The survey was completed by 1,475 people.

By 2010 we were digitally ready and digitally expectant. Of the 2,615 respondents, 79% admitted to having read a book/journal digitally, while 47% reported that they had bought one. Amazon had emerged as a clear leader by this point, well ahead of the iBookstore and Waterstones (which through its early partnership with Sony in 2008 had once been considered a contender), with Kobo just then emerging in the background. Surprisingly, “publisher’s own website”, was second place to Amazon when it came to acquiring digital content, having attracted 18% of purchases. Having refined how we measure the market size, we discovered that 46% of publishers’ sales were still in the 1% to 3% range, though many thought digital sales would double over the next year. By 2015 the rump of respondents (back in 2010) thought digital sales would be in the 11% to 20% range. The industry had quickly twigged that Amazon was in the driving seat, with 40% of publisher respondents and 54% of bookseller respondents now expecting the Seattle giant to become the dominant player.

By 2011, with the rush of digital blood coursing towards the head, we were beginning to imagine a post-print world, with questions around which formats would be wiped-out by the electronic push. Of the 2,549 respondents, 30% thought the hardback would have vanished by the end of 2016, 15% fingered the paperback, and 10% put a cheeky punt on the enhanced e-book as the dodo of the pack. The smart-money (and as it turned out the very smart-money), figured that actually it was the audio CD that was the one format unlikely to survive. E-books and apps were leading the race in terms of digital growth, but, even so, for close to a third of publishers digital sales still remained below 3% of their business. Google had entered the fray as player in digital sales, with Amazon, Google and then Apple selected as those companies most likely to dominate the digital future. Of the respondents, 85% had read digitally, 63% had done so after buying content, with the vast majority (65%) having bought via Amazon. For the first time since the survey began, a majority of respondents thought most readers would have migrated to reading on tablets by 2015. Intriguingly, two-thirds of respondents thought the book business was not re-skilling fast enough. We never asked that question again!

2012 brought in the highest number of responses - 3,535 in total. Part of this was that for the first time the survey asked direct questions of authors, both those traditionally published, and self-published. Unsurprisingly the numbers who had read digitally had risen to 90%, with an even split between those reading on digital readers and tablets. By far the vast majority were using Amazon as their e-book vendor. Needless to say 55% were now concerned by the perceived dominance in the field of “one or two global companies”. In terms of digital growth, the e-book was still way out in front, and there had been a shift in the proportion of digital sales companies were seeing: more than a third were now reporting double-digit e-sales.

Meanwhile, more than 300 authors responded to the author sections with almost half of those traditionally published authors indicating that they had contemplated self-publishing in the future. Self-published authors tended to be more satisfied with their publishing experiences, and yet only a minority of those surveyed had sold more than 1,000 copies of their books.

Last year’s survey (2013) received responses from 2,935 individuals. Of the publishers surveyed, for the first time the majority of respondents reported that digital was more than 10% of their business, with e-books by far the biggest category within that. Publishers continued to be bullish about how digital would re-shape their businesses, with two-fifths expecting digital to improve revenue and profits, and growing acceptance that both subscription and bundling could become viable business models in the future. Interestingly, discoverability emerged as one of two of the biggest hindrances to digital content sales listed by a third of publisher respondents as a problem—it has risen in importance in every survey we’ve done gradually overtaking other concerns around ‘consumers not being ready’, ‘poor technology’, ‘price’, or ‘lack of internal resources’. The biggest concern in 2013 though was ‘customers wanting free’. Of course, 90% of the respondents were now reading digitally, with most reading on the Kindle, or an iPad. Amazon had a 75% share of sales, ahead by some margin of Apple, which took just 15% of all purchases. Kobo was in third, with Google and Nook the other players.

Of the traditionally published authors who responded, there was a slight increase in those who were contemplating self-publishing. Of these traditionally published author respondents, 52% rated their publisher experiences at 6 or above (10 being the highest rating), 10 percentage points lower than in 2012’s survey. For self-publishers 70% rated their experience at 6 or above, though only 45% reported sales above 1,000 copies.

It’s early days but 2014’s survey shows a continuance of many of these recent shifts. E-books continue to grow, but enhanced and book apps are falling in prominence among publishers' digital sales. Perceptions of future growth have tempered: 24% of respondents expect digital sales to reach 50% of business by 2020, down from the 29% who thought so last year and the 32% the year before. The vast majority still think the digital transition will be good for both revenue and profits. More authors are thinking about self-publishing. And of course, nearly all of us have now read and bought an e-book.

The question I’m most looking forward to seeing responses to: Do you think the sector is prepared for the next stage in the digital revolution? Currently, almost half of respondents say, ‘no’.

To complete this year's survey, visit