Going negative on ebooks

Over the weekend someone on twitter asked me what I thought about this blog post regarding the flattening of ebook sales in the US. On his blog ‘Rough Type’, Nicholas Carr wrote the following:

In a post on the first day of this year, I noted the surprisingly rapid decline in e-book sales growth over the course of 2012. The trend appears to be continuing this year. The Association of American Publishers reports that in the first quarter of 2013, overall e-book sales in the U.S. trade market grew by just 5 percent over where they were in the same period in 2012. E-book sales in adult categories fared a bit better, rising by 13.6 percent, but that also marks a continuation of a sharp slide over the last two years. The explosive growth of the last few years has basically petered out, according to the AAP numbers*:


E-books are still taking share from printed books, sales of which declined by 4.7 percent in the quarter, but the anemic growth of the electronic market calls into question the strength of the so-called “digital revolution” in the book business. E-books now represent a bit less than 25 percent of total book sales. That’s a healthy share, but it’s still a long way from dominance. The AAP findings are backed up by a remarkable new Nielsen report indicating that worldwide e-book sales actually declined slightly in the first quarter from year-earlier levels — something that would have seemed inconceivable a couple of years ago.

There has been so much written about this apparent slow down in ebook sales that rather than engage in a detailed discussion over twitter (which I adore, but is a less than ideal platform for a nuanced and extended conversation about the state of digital book publishing in 2013) I was able to refer to a post written by Sam Missingham on the Bookseller’s FutureBook blog earlier in the year. Basically, Sam points to the huge amount of self-published ebooks that are not accounted for in the AAP data, up to 30% of the market, and the fact that 43% growth year on year is hardly something for publishers to be worried about.

Sam rounds up her post with six main points;

i)              A market that has gone from zero to conservatively 706m ebooks in 5 years in the US is not plateauing.

ii)             The area that has seen revenue growth rates reduce (again, not the same as plateauing at all) comes from data provided by 1953 traditional publishers. (A subset of the entire market).

iii)            The fact that print book sales have remained strong (actual plateauing) tells us very little about whether readers prefer e, p or e+p (absolutely no stats to back purchasing behaviour)

iv)            No consumer market has exponential growth year on year in a maturing market (including ebooks). BUT the growth year on year is still mind-blowingly HUGE.

v)             There is a growth in the number of books bought across e & p. Print books $ and units have plateaued whilst ebook units have grown rapidly. More books.

vi)  The number of self-published authors will continue to grow, in general their ebooks are cheaper; we will see more rapid growth in unit sales here.

The Rough Type post buys into the negative narrative about ebooks that Sam posits, and is emphasising the figures that support this negative standpoint.

Yes the rate of growth is down, but it is down on book sales across the board, including print. With a -4.7% change in all book sales from Q1 2012 to Q1 2013, that ebooks still grew by 5% means digital has surpassed other book format sales significantly.

And when it comes down to it, that is the story that reputable outlets are reporting: US ebook sales grew by 5% in Q1 2013. Let me repeat that: digital book sales grew. In the first quarter of this year. And that’s not including sales of self-published titles. So don’t buy into the negative narrative that some people enjoy spouting about books and the book industry (and digital in particular). Let the numbers tell the real story.


  • Phil

    I guess my two take aways from a quick a dirty analysis of
    this post and the linked articles is that:

    1) retail sales in the US are flat, books are a retail
    product. As you pointed out Anne, 5% growth in ebook is good considering.

    2) What does ‘growth’ prove? I’m always weary of this “growing faster than” argument.

    By example: A consumable product sell 100,000,000
    (100million) units and grows by 0.5% (500,000 units) to 100,500,000 units. Or
    something is at 100,000 units and grows at 15% (15,000 units) to 115,000 units.

    Statistics in ‘growth’ of something are fuzzy at best.

  • Glen Fuller

    “Growth” is shorthand for a certain relation between size of a market, profit and an extrapolation of current ‘trends’ into the future. The narrative of doom is attempting to short circuit the actual (perhaps modest) trend.

  • ZacWolf

    There is also no mention of audio books. With Amazon offering a discount when purchasing the a-book version after purchasing the e-book version, and offering whisper-sync between e-books and the a-book version, I know more and more people that are becoming more accustomed to a-books. After a few tries, many have just started to skip the p/e-book version altogether and move straight to a-book.

    I would love to see data that reflect how this trend changes these graphs…

    • Anne Treasure

      Generally publishers largely ignore audiobooks because most do not produce their own but sell the rights to an audiobook company like Bolinda. It’s hugely expensive and time-consuming to produce audio and your average publisher isn’t set up for it – but as they become more popular I imagine the bigger publishers will start doing it. It would definitely be a smart move.

Books discussed in this post:

Blog authors

Popular posts

Latest Tweets