Review of the Year 2019: digital dawdles for the Big Five

Review of the Year 2019: digital dawdles for the Big Five

In 2019, the top five UK trade publishers had a collective dip in e-book sales of 4.8%, concluding the last six years of the decade in which the groups’ cumulative digital volumes have plateaued in the 45 million to 49 million units sold range.

The drop to 47.3 million e-books sold, however, compares against a 2018 in which the five sold 49.6 million units, a record year since the publishers began sharing year-end digital data with The Bookseller. Yet only Pan Macmillan and HarperCollins had e-book growth year on year, by 2.5% and 0.7%, respectively.

Pan Mac’s rise was led by 2019’s star of The Bookseller’s Weekly E-Book Ranking, Adam Kay, who had 21 weeks at number one last year—17 times with This is Going to Hurt, and another four with Twas the Nightshift Before Christmas. Kay and The Tattooist of Auschwitz author Heather Morris were the only writers to be in every one of our E-Book Rankings last year—Kay, impressively, never appeared outside the top 10. 

The ranking has restrictions. Only eight publishers contribute and there is a minimum £2 selling price, therefore it tends not to fluctate as greatly as the Kindle charts. Still, it is remarkable that six authors were in the ranking for at least half the year. Of these, Raynor Winn’s (pictured) 26 weeks for The Salt Path is the most intriguing, sticking for six months despite spending just one week in the top 10, when it hit eighth place at the end of August. 

As we do every year, we try to deduce what this means for the overall e-book market, as the top five trade publishers’ e-book volumes give only partial insight into the full scope of the UK’s digital books sector—data that is perhaps only known to Jeff Bezos, and the Saudi prince who hacked his phone. 

The most recent Publishers Association Statistics Yearbook had e-book estimates which for the first time took in self-publishing and Amazon, and digital-first houses. It gave 2018 consumer e-book sales as £251m at invoiced value (2019 data comes out in summer 2020), a figure it said had declined by almost 20% since 2014. 

Many an indie author and digital publisher would argue that underplays the e-book market by shrinking the self-publishing side (that £251m figure excludes subscriptions). Certainly at the very top of the Kindle charts, there is consistently a significant share for the digital-first sector: for example, of the Bookstat top 25 e-books for the month of January 2020—which “scrapes” Kindle top 100 sales positions—16 are either indie-authored, or published by Amazon or Pottermore, while the other nine are from traditional houses HC, Penguin Random House and Hachette. 

With the caveat that the PA estimate may be a tad conservative, let’s assume a broadly flat market for 2019, and keep that £251m figure. That would mean retail revenues of around £409m (using as a blunt tool a 60% margin). An estimate of a £3.75 digital a.s.p. would mean 109.1 million e-books sold in 2019, of which the top five publishers would have a 42% share—ballpark, given those groups’ 47% share of the print market. That would give an “e” plus BookScan “p” value of £2.1bn and volume of 300.7 million units, with digital accounting for 19% and 36% respectively.