Measure for measure - it's time for proper e-book sales data

Measure for measure - it's time for proper e-book sales data

In the most recent Bookseller editorial, the point is made that if ebook sales are taken in to account, the book trade has turned a corner and is starting to enjoy a period of modest growth. Good news. But why are we not reflecting this new reality in our charts and publicised sales figures? There's a massive irony in the fact that there is nothing more measurable than a digital sale (trust me on this, I'm a geek), and yet we have far less published data than we do for physical book sales.

Part of the acceptance of ebooks in to the publishing mainstream surely needs to be their total integration in to the sales reporting landscape. When MP3 downloads were incorporated in to the official music charts it was a national news story and marked the point at which iTunes and its ilk began to be taken seriously by the media - and while the official top 50 book chart may not have the same resonance for consumers, it would still be a significant watershed for ebooks to be included in a combined bestsellers chart, independently audited, as well as in their own format-specific ranking. The rapidity with which publishers can amend their e-book prices would undoubtedly make such a chart especially fluid.

Sales charts cannot be left as the province of retailers who have their own objectives, and who in any case may only reveal relative positions rather than absolute volumes. Publishers can only make the decisions on what content to prioritise for digital conversion, and gain a true perspective on how effectively they are competing, once this information is out in the open.

The situation with apps is more difficult still - Apple's charts are affected by both sales / downloads, and updates, and I believe the average rating is somehow factored in to the equation too. Without knowing how chart positions are calculated, though, their value as a means of comparing the relative success of two products is distinctly limited. Given how closed Apple is on such issues, it would require the publishing trade to entrust their precious sales data to a trusted third party if we were ever going to get a meaningful understanding of what success looks like in the app arena. Even if sales figures were not revealed, publishing details of relative positions would give us a fascinating insight in to what works and what doesn't.

Let us hope that 2011 is the year that we see proper digital charts becoming a reality, a fully integrated part of the competitive landscape. Until they do, it will be down to this blog to glean what can be learned from the information available - keep up the good work Philip!