From Author Earnings:
Two years ago, the first Author Earnings report revealed the growing market share of self-published ebooks. With data on hundreds of thousands of titles, it was suddenly possible to measure the relative sales and earnings power of ebooks according to publishing path. By sharing this data, we hoped to help authors understand the changing market in order to make sound decisions with their manuscripts. In the two years since, our quarterly snapshots have revealed emerging trends in the digital publishing world. Before we get into this month’s report, let’s look at those trends, with our new February 2016 data points included.
In two short years, the market share of paid unit sales between indie and Big 5 ebooks has more than inverted. The Big 5 now account for less than a quarter of ebook purchases on Amazon, while indies are closing in on 45%.
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In the purple line above, we can see the decline in share of ebook dollars earned by Big 5 publishers. Despite the greater profitability of ebooks over print books, some of these publishers have touted their shrinking ebook sales as a positive development. Meanwhile, we know from our own data (more on this later) and from Amazon’s press releases, that overall US ebook sales have actually gone up in dollar terms. The blue indie line shows where most of that increase is being funneled. Today, a quarter of all consumer dollars spent on ebooks in the US is spent purchasing indie-published ebooks.
The most important graph for authors shows the rapidly diverging rate of ebook author income by publishing path. The Big 5 publishers are now providing less than a quarter of the dollars earned by creatives for their ebook sales. Indies are taking close to half. As detailed in previous reports, higher prices and other missteps are a likely contributor to this accelerating trend, but the reality may be that major publishers simply are finding it difficult to compete with indie authors on diversity, price, quality, and frequency of publication, as this divergence has been increasing for the last two years — well before the Big Five’s return to no-discount agency pricing. But as we can see, the transfer of market share in author earnings from Big Five to indies did steepen significantly after the Big Five’s 2015 reinstatement of agency ebook pricing.
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For this report, Author Earnings threw out all of our previous assumptions. We built a brand new rank-to-sales conversion curve from the ground up. This time we based it on raw, Amazon-reported sales data on the precise daily sales figures for hundreds of individual books from many different authors, spanning a period of many months. Our raw sales data included titles ranked in Amazon’s Overall Top 5 — titles whose KDP reports verified that they were each selling many thousands of copies a day — and it also included books ranked in the hundreds of thousands — whose KDP reports revealed were selling less than a single copy a day. We combined that mass of hard sales data with a complete daily record of Amazon Kindle sales rankings for each of those books, pulled directly from individual AuthorCentral graphs. We ended up with nearly a million distinct data points in total.
Why did we need so many data points? Because Amazon’s Overall Best Seller Rankings aren’t a simple calculation based on each book’s single-day sales — they also factor in time-decaying sales from previous days as well. To reverse-engineer Amazon’s ranking algorithms, the more raw sales and ranking data we used, the more accurate our results would get. So we fired up some powerful computers, fed them all that raw data, and let them crunch the numbers.
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Armed with our brand new, data-derived rank-to-sales conversion methodology, we were finally ready to tackle our deepest, most comprehensive look yet at Amazon’s daily book sales. We fired up AE’s web-crawling spider bot across 250 high-powered 8-core servers and walked it down each of Amazon’s thousands of best seller lists and category sub-lists. In a little over an hour, we pulled almost a terabyte of real-time data from the product pages of over 500,000 of Amazon’s best-selling titles. Here’s what we found:
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The aggregate share of indie self-published titles on Amazon’s best seller lists, at 27%, hasn’t changed since September 2015. It is still more than double the representation of Big 5 titles. But what has changed, very significantly, is the degree to which Amazon’s overall Top 20 Best Sellers, and even the overall Top 10, have come to be dominated by self-published titles from indie authors — nearly half of which were not priced at $0.99 but rather “full-priced” sales at prices between $2.99 and $5.99.
On January 10, the date our spider ran:
- 4 of Amazon’s overall Top 10 Best Selling ebooks were self-published indie titles
- 10 of Amazon’s overall Top 20 Best Selling ebooks were self-published indie titles
- 56 of Amazon’s overall Top 100 Best Selling ebooks — more than half — were self-published indie titles
- 20 of Amazon’s overall Top 100 Best Selling ebooks were indie titles priced between $2.99 and$5.99
We’re not the only ones to observe this trend, which seems to have now become the new normal.
These top-selling indie titles encompassed a wide variety of genres. Romance and Paranormal were well represented, certainly, but Amazon’s Top 100 Best Sellers also included quite a few self-published indie Science Fiction books, indie Thrillers, indie Suspense novels, indie Urban Fiction, and even Cozy Mysteries by indies.
But best seller slots held by each type of publisher is a far less interesting metric than share of daily ebooks sold, which is where we first bring our brand new rank-to-sales curve to bear:
Whether we use our new, scientifically-derived curve or the old original crowdsourced one to compute unit sales, the trend we see is exactly the same. When it comes to the number of ebooks sold each day, the market share of indie self-published titles has grown substantially since our September 2015 report, while traditional publishing’s collective market share has shrunk. Indie books now account for more than 42% of all ebook purchases each day on Amazon.com.
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Sometimes a change in strategy achieves the intended result… and sometimes it backfires.
The Big Five’s return to agency ebook pricing may have been just such a case.
Their ebook pricing strategy was intended, at least in part, to slow the erosion of brick-and-mortar print book sales.*(3) By preventing Amazon from discounting the Big Five’s ebooks at Amazon’s own expense, the Big Five could force the consumer prices of their ebooks artificially high — higher than what many consumers are willing to pay for digital books. The thinking among Big Five publishers was undoubtedly that this would encourage those consumers to buy fewer ebooks on Amazon, and instead buy more hardcovers and paperbacks in brick and mortar bookstores, thus preserving a legacy distribution advantage long held by the biggest traditional publishers… and one that was fading away fast as a higher and higher percentage of book purchases were being made online instead.
From November 2014 to September 2015, the Big Five publishers negotiated brand new two-year contracts with Amazon in which they fought aggressively for — and won — the right to prevent Amazon from discounting their ebooks. Prior to these contracts, Big Five ebooks were discounted steeply at Amazon’s own expense. Our data from 2014 and early 2015 revealed that Amazon was on average selling Big Five and other traditionally-published ebooks to consumers at breakeven prices and making zero or marginal gross profit from them. That’s almost no profit on traditionally published ebooks, while Amazon was earning a healthy margin on the sale of indie and Amazon-imprint ebooks. In effect, prior to the Big Five’s return to agency, Amazon was more or less selling traditionally-published ebooks at cost. They were subsidizing traditional publisher ebook profits and traditionally-published ebook author earnings by nearly 30%.
By reinstituting agency ebook pricing and forcing their own consumer ebook prices high while preventing Amazon from discounting those ebooks, the Big Five publishers put a halt to that. They willingly did financial harm to their own bottom lines and in the process also seriously damaged the sales and earnings of their own authors, in an attempt to wrest market share and control away from their largest and most profitable retailer.
Did they succeed in that goal?
According to both our data and Amazon’s own public statements, despite the Big Five’s return to agency ebook pricing, Amazon’s overall US ebook sales have continued to grow throughout 2015 in both unit terms and dollar terms. On the other hand, the Big Five’s share of those ebook sales has plunged precipitously in both dollars terms, and even more precipitously in unit terms.
That particular outcome was easily predicted — and probably inevitable. Perhaps the Big Five viewed it as a strategic sacrifice.
But at the same time, Amazon’s online print sales — driven by steeply discounted hardcovers and paperbacks, which in many cases were priced even lower than the ebook editions — ALSO went up.Significantly. In fact, our data points toward Amazon seeing even greater growth in their 2015 print sales than in their 2015 ebook sales.
As of mid-January 2016, Amazon.com’s print sales were running at a rate of 969,000 print books a day.
With the largest bookstore chains reporting 2015 book sales as flat or down, and book sales also down significantly for warehouse and club outlets, an uptick in local independent bookstore sales is a small brick-and-mortar bright spot. But it’s extremely likely that most if not all of print’s reported 2015 “resurgence” took the form of increased online print sales… at Amazon.com.
We suspect that the Big Five’s high ebook agency pricing, and Amazon’s steeper online discounting of print books, may well have had the opposite of the intended effect. It may have encouraged traditional hardcover and paperback buyers — including those who had zero interest in buying digital editions — to take advantage of those steeper discounts and purchase more of their books online, while buying fewer in brick-and-mortar bookstores.
Some very savvy analysts who cover the industry from the traditional side, and whose insights *(4) we value greatly, have pointed out that this particular outcome may not necessarily have been unanticipated by the agency publishers. But they still may have deemed it the lesser evil, if in the process they could also slow the consumer shift from buying print to “e”.
But either way, if true, it means that more print-book buyers are now shopping at a storefront where indie print books share a significant portion of shelf space alongside books from traditional publishers, and where indie print books are now fast-approaching a double-digit percentage of print sales.
Link to the rest at Author Earnings
A couple of thoughts from PG:
1. As he has noted before, Hugh and Data Guy are conservative in the way they treat Small or Medium Publisher numbers.
Quite a number of indie authors have created their own publishing imprints and list those imprint names on Amazon. Since Author Earnings doesn’t know if XYZ Publishing is a single author or a small press that publishes 25 authors, AE conservatively groups single author publishers with Small/Medium Publishers.
PG believes that the true numbers of indie authors are much higher because of the omission of indie imprints from the indie author categories.
To be clear, this is not a criticism of AE in any way, but a suggestion that indie authors are more dominant on Amazon than AE’s excellent data demonstrate.
2. As PG considered AE’s “250 high-powered 8-core servers” and the data analytics chops behind AE’s conclusions, he believes that these stats are substantially more sophisticated than a typical traditional publisher generates for its internal purposes.