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Stats are often hard to interpret in our business

15 January 2013

From veteran publishing consultant Mike Shatzkin:

I tried an exercise last week of asking a few agents for their impressions of the evolving ebook marketplace. I wanted to get a handle on two things: where we are now in terms of books sold in stores versus books sold other ways and whether the transition from print to digital consumption is slowing down.

The picture I got from nine smart and well-informed agents seems to confirm that:

* sales of ebooks for fiction more often than not top 50% of the total sales, in both the hardcover life and the paperback;

* sales of ebooks for immersive non-fiction are at something like half the percentage of fiction;

* illustrated books do a lot less in their digital editions, which usually struggle to reach 10% of the sale;

* while the marketplace data seems unambiguous, the agents have not formed a consensus that the print-to-ebook switchover is slowing down.

. . . .

If 50% of fiction is selling now as ebooks, it is likely that only about 35% of it is selling as print in stores (because 25-30 percent of the print sale is online). Considering that number was more like 90% ten years ago and 80% five years ago, that’s all the explanation anybody needs to understand the reduction of shelf space we’ve seen. Every year when stores are interviewed about traffic and sales, they cite the presence (or absence) of “big books” as a key driver. The “big books” are most often big fiction. This year, the Fifty Shades family of titles may have provided that lift, which may be why stores (other than B&N) are anecdotally reporting a strong Christmas.

But what the industry should be most interested in, which will be reflected in the next round of royalty statements agents see, is that ebook sales growth appears to have damn near stopped.

Link to the rest at The Shatzkin Files


33 Comments to “Stats are often hard to interpret in our business”

  1. “But what the industry should be most interested in, which will be reflected in the next round of royalty statements agents see, is that ebook sales growth appears to have damn near stopped.”

    Thank God! I was worried there for a moment! Four Seasons for lunch?

  2. Okay. We don’t have the same agenda, obviously, but I like Mike, I think he’s smart. But my on-going perception is that when it comes to data, he is alittle off center. He uses “educated guesses” to support his data, for example.

    But an educated guess is still a guess. You can not make any conclusions from a guess.

    And since Amazon has not released their stats, anything related to data in the industry is just that – a guess. And interpreting a ‘guess’ in the way that you want to is dangerous. It can leave you unprepared for the real future.

  3. Stats are hard to interpret because they never paint the full picture. Does the slow down in eBook sales reflect a stabilization, or just a shift to indies? Pundits always look at isolated islands of data and draw the conclusions they wanted to in the first place.

    • Exactly.
      If the market shows any kind of slowdown in ebook reader adoption (pretty much an acknowledged reality by now) while simultaneously accelerating indie ebook sales (a clear trend from the bestseller lists) then it follows that trad-published (and agented) content will see a bigger slowdown in ebooks than the market as a whole so projecting that data to the entire market will produce misleading results.
      Not having access to full information and trying to fill in the blanks with guesses is a good way to misread the market and convince yourself you know something you don’t really know.

      Easy to see what Amazon doesn’t release specifics about their sales, no?
      The “fog of war” works to their advantage by forcing their opponents and antagonists to make decisions backed by incomplete data.

    • And he admits his stats are incomplete: no one knows how well, in general, Indie writers are doing because no one knows the total numbers. Not even Amazon. (Although their knowledge may be closer to accuracy than anyone else.) And he doesn’t take into consideration BookScan numbers are incomplete — which was pointed out in Colleen Doran’s blog http://www.thepassivevoice.com/01/2013/inaccurate-bookscan-stats-and-the-plight-of-the-midlist-author/

      I’d offer a guess what the actual state of the market is, but at best it would be only as good as anyone else posting, & at worst betray my ignorance. So I’ll just repeat here the axiom, you can’t forecast what you can’t measure.

  4. I think Shatzkin, for all his smarts, has a conscious or unconscious bias in favor of traditional publishing and it blinds him.

  5. “ebook sales growth appears to have damn near stopped.”

    Damn near stopped? He cites it as 13%. I don’t know if the data is good, but 13% is great in just about any market. I look forward to 13% next year.

    • If ebook sales have stopped growing, then publishers are in bad shape because print sales are shrinking, in part because bookstores are closing right and left.

      • Uh, are we sure which way the causal link goes?
        In death spirals, even mild ones, it is easy to lose track of what came first. The stores are closing because of reduced sales which means less shelf space for books which reduces sales which leads to more store downsizing and closures which feeds the next cycle.

        Do we know what started the cycle?
        Online sales?
        Ever-increasing bestseller prices?
        DVD rentals?

        • Amazon, Felix. The answer is always Amazon. 😉

          • Well, yeah.
            I understand they’re the root of all evil *today*. 🙂

            But the retail “deathspiral” predates them.
            The mythical golden age of independent bookstores on every other corner bemoaned by so many ended long before Bezos got down to business.

            • Felix, believe me, I do know that. I’m a lot older than most people think though I don’t act it. 😀

              It’s just when people start bemoaning the loss of print and bookstores, I see John Schuck as the Klingon Ambassador from the Star Trek movies, bellowing about the “quitessential devil in these matters” and pointing at Jeff Bezos, even though Bezos had absolutely nothing to do with the Genesis device.

  6. I like to read Mikes thoughts too. He’s become a real window into the mindset of the traditional publishers. Yet I find myself taking his opinions into account less and less lately. This post was no real surprise, I guessed the outcome at the same point that he lost me.

    Right about here;

    “I tried an exercise last week of asking a few agents for their impressions of the evolving ebook marketplace.”

    He’s asking agents for data? “Excuse me Mr. T-Rex, can you give me your thoughts on the approaching asteroid?”

    “I’m sorry, I cant see it with my head in the sand like this.”

    I’ve come to expect better of Mike. I’m dissapointed.

    • Hmm, maybe the fog metaphor is more appropriate than I thought. If you’re lost in a foggy forest, the only people who might hear you would be equally lost, no?
      Yet, who else to ask? 😉

      Of course, nowadays some folks would use modern tech in the form of their cellphone GPS. But traditionalists eschew those frills, no?

  7. Stats are particularly hard to interpret when your mental model of how the industry works is totally out of sync with reality.

    Comparing print vs. ebooks in terms of gross dollar sales by trad pub is quite misleading if you want to track whether the transition from print to digital consumption is slowing down.

    You need to know how much of the market has shifted to indie publishing. You need to look at units, not dollars. You need to figure out how much digital consumption is of free books. You need to look at the behavior of the particular market segments.

  8. A tradpub acquaintance of mine has seen her mass market (romance genre) print run drop 65% over the last 4 years – and was told by her editor that it’s happening across the board. In addition, her most recent release is seeing 50% ebook sales — which are only going to increase as the ‘shelf life’ of the print book degrades (3-6 months after release).

    Interesting times!

    • Good point. The growing shift to backlist will be a big driver in eBook growth. Shrinking shelf space can’t compete with the long eTail. Those two factors will keep feeding each other until the shelves are completely gone.

  9. While I find it important to follow traditional publishing news, I always love reading about it here where before I get too worried it can be put in perspective by independent authors who have more experience than me. 🙂

  10. You can’t even use the rise of indie books onto bestseller lists as an indication. If my past year of reading indie books tells me anything, it’s that I ended up reading a lot of stuff nowhere near the bestseller lists. There is a glut of indie books now, just counting the good ones, and most have low visibility. If 20% of the bestsellers are indie books, that doesn’t mean 20% of all books sold are indie.

    Seth Godin predicted this would be the case. He said that the last of the great classics have already been written, because going forward, there will be almost no books that “everyone” has read. We’re all fragmenting off toward our personal tastes, making it hard for any single book to appeal to a majority of us.

  11. It’s not hard to understand. We’ve had the epic kick off boom for ebooks, its leveled off to a more sustainable longer-term growth rate, so what happens now is that publishers spend the next few years watching print revenue steadily decline at a pace exceeding the gains from digital growth. It’s not a prediction, its a fairly consistent trend with digital products overtaking physical ones. It’s gonna happen, and I for one don’t really believe publishers are prepared for it, even though the identical cycle has taken place with every other physical medium facing emerging digital competition.

  12. I have just received a request from Harlequin ebooks and Crimson Romance – another eBooks publishing house wanting to read my book. My question is, how much does either pay up front – Advance Royalties – if any? How much does one book usually bring in – how does the whole process work?

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