I was talking to the lawyer of a big publishing house the other day. We were discussing ebooks, and he made the claim that ebooks were just a fad, and one that is dying off at that. Obviously, this surprised me, so I asked him about his sources. “Sector publications,” he said, somewhat vaguely.
He was right: several publications have been making similar claims in the last 3 years. I even posted about the supposed shrinking of the US book market back in 2015. But our chat made me think it might be time to see what has happened since.
The Error In The Method
It all started with a 2015 Nielsen Pubtrack estimate which said that 6% fewer ebooks had been sold in the US in 2014. A subsequent Ink, Bits & Pixels post convincingly showed that Nielsen’s estimate of 223 million ebooks sold in the US was completely erroneous. Ink, Bits & Pixels cites not one but two sources which say that the US ebook market is at least twice as large as that.
The first source is the pseudonymous Data Guy (yes, the one behind the famous Author Earnings Report). His calculations suggested that around 513 million ebooks were sold in the US ebook market in 2014 – twice as many as Pubtrack estimates.
The second source is more eponymous: the Association of American Publishers itself. Their annual estimates of the US book market estimated 510 million ebooks sold in the US in 2014 (much closer to Data Guy’s estimate). Yes, the AAP says that the US ebook market is over twice as large as Nielsen had claimed. It turns out that Nielsen widely over-estimated its ability to track the US ebook market.
Nielsen’s number is so far off because it thinks that the 30 publishers it tracks represent 85% of the market when in reality they represent around half that number.
What About Today?
This trend continued in 2015 and 2016, as their latest author earnings report shows. US trade print sales rose in 2015 and 2016 because in 2015 “agency” contracts eliminated Amazon’s discounting of ebooks from large traditional publishers. So, in mid-2015, Amazon raised discounts on their print books instead. Which means that the celebrated increase of print was really publishers celebrating Amazon gobbling up Barnes & Nobles, Target, Walmart, and other brick-and-mortar bookstores.
However, in mid-2016, Amazon decreased discounts on print books back to the 2014 levels. As a direct result, print sales immediately dropped, leading to an increase of only 3% to 2015 (compared to an original forecast of 6%). This was actually lower than Amazon’s ebook sales, which grew by 4%.
Enter The Indies
Even that, however, isn’t taking account of Indie ebooks and Kindle Unlimited. When someone includes these, it emerges that ebooks sales are, in fact, over twice as large–485 million instead of 221 million! The two slides below reflect that fact: the top one show the numbers when one excludes Indies (as Nielsen does), while the bottom one has included both Indie sales and Kindle Unlimited ones.
This is not a statistical error; it’s enough to completely change (dare I say, end?) the conversation about the supposed ebook’s decline. As Author Earnings argues, the real question nowadays isn’t Print vs. Digital: it’s Brick & Mortar vs. Online. In other words, Amazon vs. the world.