Ebooks Outsell Print! Putting Headlines in Context

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Widely-discussed book news this week: Amazon UK's report that ebook sales have outstripped the sales of all print formats combined.
According to unaudited figures released by [Amazon UK] on Monday, since the start of 2012, for every 100 hardback and paperback book sold on its site, customers downloaded 114 ebooks.
This generated many headlines announcing that Ebooks Beat Print!, along with the usual "Print is dead!" commentary (regretful or jubilant, according to bias). However, Amazon is famous for reporting statistics without providing the details necessary to fully evaluate them--just as the media is famous for disseminating a juicy sound bite even if it doesn't really represent the actual news story. Herewith, a bit of context.

- The figures are unaudited. According to The Guardian, "Amazon has refused to release audited figures for its digital book sales, something it does for printed books. It told the Guardian that the company would not discuss future policy on the matter."

- Lost in many of the headlines: the report comes from Amazon UK, not Amazon overall. I admit this is kind of a bagatelle, especially since Amazon US reported similar news back in 2011--but still, accuracy is important. Call me a pedant.

- I can't help wondering how much of a sales bump was provided by the phenomenal popularity of the tiresomely over-hyped 50 Shades trilogy.

- Free ebooks were excluded from Amazon's calculations, which is good...but how many of the ebooks were Kindle exclusives, available only at Amazon? Even if it's only a small percentage of the whole, the inclusion of books that can be bought nowhere else would tend to skew the figures.

- Amazon has the most popular single ebook reading device (Kindle owned about 40% of the market as of the end of 2011) and an even more commanding chunk of the ebook market (around 60% right now, according to most sources). Beyond the still-rapidly-growing enthusiasm for ebooks, these factors certainly contributed to ebook sales dominance at Amazon.

- Amazon is the world's major vendor of ebooks...but it's just one of many vendors of print books. In the USA, for instance, ebooks had become "the single dominant format in adult fiction sales" by the end of 2011--but as of January 2012, the sale of print formats was still more than triple that of ebooks across all trade categories.

- Last but not least, for those who fear that print is dead, or wish it had died some time ago, I came across an interesting article this week about the Book Industry Study Group's ongoing survey of consumers' attitudes toward ebooks. The latest figures from this survey reveal that print is seeing gains as ebook consumers diversify their buying habits.
The percentage of e-book consumers who "exclusively or mostly" purchased book content in e-book format decreased from nearly 70% in August 2011 to 60% in May 2012...During the same period, the percentage of survey respondents who had no preference for either e-book or print formats, or who bought some genres in e-book format and others in print, rose from 25% to 34%.
This suggests that, for the moment, we're heading toward a hybrid market in which ebooks are just one more book format for consumers to choose from--not the doom of print, nor a cause célèbre, but simply another container for text. Of course, we're still on the cusp of a paradigm shift, so no one can say what may happen in the far future. But with that caveat, I think print books and ebooks will co-exist relatively peaceably for some time to come...Amazon statistics notwithstanding.

9 comments to Ebooks Outsell Print! Putting Headlines in Context

  • This is a great and informative article. It’ll be interesting to see what happens in the future. I kind like print books, but I’m old-fashioned. Thanks for the post, Victoria!

  • As they say, there are lies, damned lies, and then there are statistics. It’ll be interesting to get a better idea of what these numbers/claims really mean (but, as you pointed out very well here, there are a lot of gaps in the info, so you could really interpret this a number of ways).

    I think I’ll echo what several other commentors already said — I like ebooks (a LOT actually), but that doesn’t mean I want to see print dead. Both have their places in my little corner of the world. I do take it as a serious sign of the current trends, though, and any author/publisher should be listening closely and considering new options for their business.

  • Amy Logg

    An interesting story. I can’t help but think though that although free e-books weren’t counted in the results there are many $0.99 e-books, that I myself have purchased, but wouldn’t have purchased it if it had cost any more. You can’t compare results like that, it just doesn’t create accurate results.

    I don’t think printed books will die out anytime soon, I personally love print books – the feel of it in your hands, the smooth or shinny cover, and the smell (yes I said it, I love the smell of books!) E books just can’t compete with the overall experience print books give me! But then again I’m a purist ;)

  • Victoria Strauss

    For me, the tipping point to getting an e-reader will come when a wide selection of ebooks is easily available via libraries. Currently, that’s not the case, and it doesn’t look as if it will happen anytime soon, unfortunately.

    As a reader, I don’t have an ideological loyalty to print–a book is a book, regardless of the format, and although I personally prefer print, I imagine that’s really just because it’s what I grew up with. As an author, though, I would mourn the demise of the book as a physical object. Ebooks are ephemeral–they’re vulnerable to device failure and technology shifts, plus you don’t actually own them; you just license them from the vendor. As an author it bothers me to think of my creation as such an impermanent thing. Plus, there truly is nothing like the thrill of holding a bound copy of your own book for the first time.

  • I love my e-reader. Due to poor eyesight, I struggle to read regular books, but on the e-reader the text can be as large as I like. Saves a lot of headaches, literally.

    I also like carrying thousands of books with me anywhere at any time, being able to buy books instantly without leaving my house and not having my favorite books damaged in my bag.

    I miss adding new books to my bookshelf and I miss being able to have books signed.

    I still buy non fiction in physical form though. Particularly cooking and gardening books where you want big, glossy pictures.

    Both have their pros and cons, but at the moment, we don’t really have to choose, except on a book by book basis. I don’t think print books will ever vanish or start to decline in any major way until the people in their 20s and 30s now die out in 80 years.

  • I read both print and e-book and my kids still read print books exclusively, but times are changing, so I wonder whether print will become absolete because of technology. I love the smell of books. I followed your post from YALITCHAT, so find me.

  • Yes, it’s good to really think about how accurate (or not) a sensational heading is. I love my Kindle Fire, but I also love paper books–and I have yours waiting on my side-table to be read!

  • I read both print and ebook. If I love a series, I want it in print. If I’m trying out something new and I don’t previously know the author, I test it in ebook. I like that we have options, but I don’t ever want print books to go away.

  • The e-book business is very mysterious. Every month my most popular e-book sells many more copies on the Apple store than on Amazon.

    Michael N. Marcus
    http://www.bookmakingblog.blogspot.com
    http://www.SilverSandsBooks.com
    http://www.BookFur.com
    http://www.Facebook.com/SilverSandsBooks

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