One Annoying Thing About Loving Books: The Impossibility of Getting Good Consistent Numbers of Sales

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Summary: Book-culture is not one that likes to brag about hard figures: how much money is made per book, how many copies sold. In some ways, it can be really annoying. Maybe the most annoying thing about being a current book addict. We have no idea how well our hobby is thriving.

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

(16:34:14 CST)

One Annoying Thing About Loving Books: The Impossibility of Getting Good Consistent Numbers of Sales

There have been a few strands and threads of blogs and articles cropping up about Amazon's real numbers of sales figures for their Kindle and related ebooks. Here are two:

  1. It Doesn't Take Many E-Book Sales to Make a Kindle Bestseller (Sarah Weinman)
  2. Time for the SEC to ask for Amazon's Kindle numbers—both hardware and e-book sales (David Rothman)

Here is the basic gist. Amazon brags about how the Kindle is selling, about how the books are selling, and how Kindle books, when available, average something like 48% of total book sales for the title. Amazon claimed that the Kindle was its number one gift this year and that Kindle's book sales actually made a majority of sales for many titles during the holiday season. I myself have blogged about how some publishers are trying to fight the impact on hardcovers by ebooks and how that developed into something like a war over when ebooks will be published. This makes sense, right, if people are buying more AZWs than hardcovers. But what if that is all a smoke screen? It's easy to brag about numbers when you never produce them?

The first article has some flaws or failures of logic. I can think of two. First off, a single book does not make an sample worthy of discussion. It does not even make a sample. It makes an example, but only an anecdotal one. Especially since it describes Waldenbooks, now largely closed down as the ineffective appendage of Borders, as being a bigger contender than Barnes & Noble. And thrillers are still heavily bought by older females, who might not be quite so quick to turn to for anything but who do shop in Wal-mart and Costco on a regular basis. Not to mention that Wal-mart only carries a handful of titles and never for that long, outside of a few perennial sellers. How about in the past five years? What percentage of units moved are from Amazon versus Wal-mart? How about we try something like Clive Barker and see how much Wal-mart counts versus Amazon, or maybe John Dies at the End. Her second failure of logic is that she snips about how of the top 100 Kindle sales, 64 come from free books. Free books. Here's a suggestion, let's get B&N to set up a publishing venture where they publish dozens of classics and even current books and give them away for free. You don't even have to go to the store. You just order them online and they will ship them promptly. Let's see how B&N's best-selling top-100 looks then. Free (as in only a few seconds of time to click and no shipping fees on top) screws all metrics up, it is a bad idea to quote it.

Those two flaws beside, Weinman brings up a point. Amazon is wanting to talk in percentages and not hard numbers. She does admit that as far as ebook sales go, Amazon makes up 78% of the market. And, as an article I linked in the "release date war" post mentioned, ebooks have grown to something like 15% of the market. A quick couple bits of math, and we get a number close to 12% then. Does that sound right? I don't know. If that is the case, then 12% of the total market is something to be wary of. The market is a plurality and having 1/8th of the whole thing tied up in a single division of your company is power. I have a feeling that once you get past a handful of best-sellers, the numbers go a lot more wonky.

The point of this post, though, is not to brag or to bash on Sarah Weinman. It is to point out simply that book sales have been as close to a public secret as you can get for far too long in general, and ebook sales are a dozen times worse. Why? I have no idea. Well, I have an idea. Momentum is part of it. Ebooks are increasing in momentum partially because we are being told they are increasing. If it turned out that Amazon sells barely 1000 Kindle downloads a week, it would pop the whole bubble. And don't get me wrong, the bubble is bigger than Amazon. The nook is mostly about because the Kindle paved the way. See also Sony's handful of readers (here's seeing if they can not cancel a given model for at least a year). The Kindle proved the concept of the ebook reader (and yes, possibly just in time for the hand-com model to over take it) and it partially did so by not disclosing its numbers. I can go and find out how many middle-aged women went to see District 9 in its third week. Why is it that I have no idea how well Jonathan Lethem's new book is doing without speculation and anecdotes? All this gloom and doom about books dying and all this hype and joy about Kindles exploding, and it means nothing. Neither side is willing to pony up the goods, and so us readers sit around and guess. I guess they are doing well. I guess it is a successful promotion.

We do, of course, get rumors about B&N's nook server crashing from demand. Which means about as much as hearing that a brick wall had a crack in it. It could have been a dozen authorizations at the same time triggered an infinite loop. It could have been that a hacker had a go. It could have been thousands and thousands of books at once overwhelmed and melted the CPU. What B&N hoped you thought it meant was that it was so damned successful that it was crushed by its own greatness. Another series of generous platitudes about an in-house product. Still no hard data.

What about indie titles that might have better chances under ebook ventures? Does this buy them a chance or just cost them money? This, overall, has to be throwing off marketing somewhere. How can this continue? Why hasn't some large publisher ousted Amazon for not having numbers? Presumably the publishers no much how their books are selling. Does this mean that 12% of the total market aren't being counted for best-seller lists, for popularity contests, for anything? Why is it so hard to find this out? That's insane.

Ah well...

Si Vales, Valeo


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