Measuring the Amazon

Measuring the Amazon

There are many pertinent questions that need answering in the digital books market. Here are just a few: What is the actual size of the overall e-book sector? What is the hard data telling us about the trends that are emerging? Which genres are up and which are down? The best answer to those questions may be with another: who the hell knows?

Individual publishers and retailers know how much they are shifting, but full market information can only be couched in approximations. Until that day comes when all the e-tailers get on board and start sharing credible e-book sales data with Nielsen, we are stuck with fag-packet calculations.

It seems a far off day, a book trade Zeno’s Paradox, where we never reach the end because we can only ever go halfway there—let’s call it Bezos’ Paradox. There is some irony that we are flailing in the dark a bit in the digital age with e-tailers having more ability to extract exact customer data—not just in buying habits but when and how users read digitally.

Yet there are some lessons we can learn about the state of play of the market by simply looking at the bare statistics that are available on Amazon—which has perhaps 80%–85% of the UK e-books market (depending who you ask).

First let’s look at the total number of titles. This is a very blunt instrument—not least because these numbers are added to daily, and the vagaries of the Amazon search metrics. But at the time of writing, there are 775,239 Kindle books on Amazon.co.uk. Of that 36% (279,795) are classed as fiction and 64% non-fiction. Compare that fiction/non-fiction ratio to Amazon’s paperbacks. There are over 14.1 million title entries in paperback on Amazon (this, of course, includes out of print, print on demand and rare books), of which 7.8% (1.1m) are fiction. This seems to confirm some of the received wisdom that digital is far more fiction-friendly.

Breaking down Kindle and fiction sub-categories by genre is interesting. The top five Kindle fiction sub-categories by number of titles are: Romance; Crime, Thriller and Mystery; Science Fiction and Fantasy (two categories I have combined); Children’s Fiction; and Erotica. Romance accounts for 18% of all of Kindle fiction titles. The top five in paperbacks are Contemporary Fiction; Poetry and Drama; Crime, Thriller and Mystery; Romance; and Sci Fi and Fantasy.

There are many caveats in looking at these lists, but interesting conclusions can be drawn even given the caveats. First of all, there is the different categorisation Amazon uses for its e-book and paperback offers. In paperbacks a book will appear in more than one major sub-category, but just one for its Kindle edition. David Nicholls’ One Day (Hodder), for example, is number one in both Contemporary Fiction and Romance in paperback, but does not appear in the Kindle Romance category. Some categories are not the same; on the Kindle there is Men’s Adventure, which on paperbacks morph’s into the similar Lad Lit.

Genre fiction rules for the Kindle, but it is interesting how closely the two Top 10 fiction category charts relate, barring the strength of Romance and Erotica. Erotica is the only entry of any category that appears in either top 10 which has more Kindle books than any other format—53% of all
the category’s titles that appear on Amazon are digital.

We can see how immature certain genres are on the Kindle. Children’s books make up about 25% of the Nielsen BookScan overall physical books market and there are almost 1.3 million children’s title listings on Amazon in hardback and paperback. Yet there are only just under 25,000 Kindle kid’s entries—or about 3% of the total number of Kindle books.

We hear again and again about how the e-reader will be a boon for a rebirth of the short story and short form reading. That might not be panning out just yet, given the amount of publishing into these categories. Anthologies barely make a dent in the Kindle universe—just 3,555 titles.

Although one can prioritise book searches by price, either lowest to highest or highest to lowest, Amazon seems cagey about letting its users know the exact number of free titles on the site. A strict “for free” content search is limited to “top free” bestsellers; even searching under the term “£0.00 leads to only 464 Kindle books.

Searching by price band is limited, but as one might expect, the bulk of Kindle books are towards the lower end of the market. Around 60% of all Kindle books are £5 or less. The highest priced book at the moment on the Kindle? That would be Nuclear Energy, edited by K Heinloth, Volume VIII, Number 3 in Springer’s Landolt-Bornstein Numerical Data and Functional Relationships in Science and Technology series. It is yours for £4,363.86.