Ebook sales? Not telling you.

The Problem

One problem with selling ebooks is that it’s very hard to know exactly how many copies other titles have sold.  This means there is no best-seller list and very little data on the relative success of different genres.  It’s almost impossible to do a comparative analysis of the market as a whole, of the kind that magazines like the Bookseller do for print books on a regular basis.   As an ebook distributor, I only know how many copies my titles have sold, and I can’t compare their performance with sales of similar titles from other publishers.  Unless we are a publisher with huge lists across multiple genres, we can’t get a balanced picture of the market.

The Reason for the Problem

The reason for this is that there is such a small number of retailers selling ebooks in large quantities.  All the sales data for printed books is collected from the retailers, who report to Nielsen how many copies they’ve sold of each title.  Because there are so many bookshops giving this information, you can’t tell how many copies any one shop or company has sold.  The problem with ebook sales is that they are concentrated in so few retailers who are reporting their sales to Nielsen, that if those figures were published, it would expose their individual sales figures to the public, because by looking at the different formats (Kindle or ePub) we could deduce who had sold what.  As this kind of  information is normally considered confidential, the figures have not been released.

Will the Problem Go Away?

I hope that this problem is just a symptom of an immature market, and that it won’t be long before so many bookshops are selling ebooks that none are identifiable from the aggregated data.  However, as long as Amazon remain almost the only  retailer selling Kindle versions, their anonymity is never going to be protected, unless the format information is left out of the data.  That would again limit the usefulness of the data to publishers, who need to be able to make informed decisions about formats as well as topics and overall figures.

Maybe One Day

The news (on Moco News) that some publishers are opening up their book sales data to authors,  saving them from having to wait for their six-monthly royalty statement may well (as Laura Hazard Owen hopes in her article) prompt calls for greater openness about sales generally, and pressure to find a way round the commercial confidentiality risks of reporting ebook sales in particular.

Evolving Ebook Clauses

Ebooks have always been difficult to define.

Publishers used to claim that the ebook was just another delivery method for the author’s work, so naturally belonged implicitly under volume rights.  That didn’t last.  In 2001 Random House Inc lost a court case against Rosetta Books for trying to define them as part of volume rights.

Once it was established that ebook rights needed to be explicitly defined in the contract, definitions emerged which confined the ebook to being an electronic replica of a printed book.  They used words like ‘verbatim’, ‘in whole’, ‘unaltered’ etc in a form ‘primarily designed for reading’.

But it is very difficult to make a water-tight definition that can’t be mistaken for anything else.  On the Ebook Strategy course I teach at Book House, we always try, but ebooks are very difficult to pin down.  But although we can’t define it, we feel we instinctively know what an ebook is when we see one.

Now it looks as if ebooks are becoming even harder to pin down.  The ebook clause is evolving again.  This time the definitions aim to allow for enhanced editions, giving the publisher scope to make full use of the the features of ePub3 described in my last post.   Recent examples include the use of words such as ‘additional materials’ of various kinds to ‘enrich’ and enhance’ the reading experience.  Does the intuitive “knowing it when we see it” still apply?  If it has the full text of the book at its heart, with extra material added at the beginning or end, yes, we are happy to say it’s still basically an ebook.  But if the text itself is broken up, re-interpreted with images and audio, and perhaps even accessed non-sequentially, is it still an ebook?  Or has it become something else?  If so, what?

This is very exciting for readers, but the worry is that if the ebook is defined too broadly, it will encroach onto other rights, such as film, or app rights.   The challenge now is to hammer out new definitions that accurately describe the ebook in all its glory, without being so loose that anything goes.

Or will the divide disappear altogether, and this become another front line of convergence of media.

Ebooks have been around for just over 10 years, and in the mass market only for about 3 years.  It’s very early days for this new technology.  We are still making ebooks that look like books.  The first cars looked just like carriages.  Just as the very first car manufacturers could not imagine our sleek, fast cars of today, so we cannot imagine the ebooks of 2111.  I wish we could fast-forward, and take a look.

 

5 Reasons to Love ePub3

Everyone is talking about ePub 3 which is launched this autumn, so I went along to UCL’s Digital Publishing Forum to find out what the fuss is all about. This is what I discovered from a very good talk by Graham Bell of Editeur.

Where did it come from?

ePub 1 was the Open Ebook format (OEB) developed by the IDPF
ePub 2 is the one we use now. The first device we could read ePub books on was the Sony Reader, launched in 2008.
But many publishers and readers are painfully aware of it’s limitations, so the IDPF have been working on upgrading it.
Now they have ePub 3 about ready to use, and you can see the specs on their website at idpf.org/ePub/30/spec

What does it do?

  • Media: The thing that makes all the difference is that an ePub 3 file also contains other media, so things like audio, and animation can be added to the book, yet it still retains the all-important reflowing text of ebooks. These other media will appear in the correct place in the book, synchronised with the text – they don’t have to be grouped in an appendix at the back. Some ebooks do already include multi-media but they only work on a few types of reader, so if you have the wrong kind of phone, or your ereader is the wrong make, you miss out. ePub 3 aims to reduce these differences between machines as ePub 3 becomes a universally recognised industry standard.
  • Layout: Current ePub ebooks are fine for novels and straight text, but ePub3 goes much further – not just books but also magazines, newspapers, journals, corporate publications whose highly designed pages need a fixed layout to look great, are more likely to work well too.
  • Languages: whether the writing goes left to right or right to left, and starts at the front or the back of the book, whether it writes in letters or scripts or characters, ePub 3 will show it correctly.

How does it do it?

ePub 3 is based on HTML5. As this is the same code that many apps are created in, it will pave the way for ebooks to become more app-like. At the moment web browsers use HTML4 so we won’t be reading ebooks in Internet Explorer or Google Chrome.

HTML 5 is based on XML so ePub 3 tags keep meaning and structural descriptions separate from presentation instructions. This has the effect of making them less media-specific. An example is the <i> tag. Instead of meaning italics as it does in HTML 4, it means emphasised. A screen may be directed to show this in italics, but a read-aloud programme will know (directed by the CSS) to put a stress on that word when it reads it out. Similarly, the <b> tag no longer just means bold, it means strong, so the read-aloud will speak louder at that place.

What does this mean for publishers?

  1. Better slicing and dicing: selling parts of a book is something publishers would Ilke to do more of, and the new structural tags in ePub 3 make it much easier to do. Each chapter or section has its own self contained structure showing headings and subheadings in relation to the part, not just the whole. It’s like a row of terraced houses that you can move apart into small detached houses without the party walls falling down.
  2. Better page design: ePub 3 benefits from better styles in CSS. The designer can now put the page or parts of the page into columns and the reading device will fit them onto the screen, regardless of the size of the screen – they just reflow. This makes ebooks a possibility for a whole range of titles that really need that option in order to look good
  3. Better discoverability: no-one can buy a book unless they can find it, and online you find by searching. ePub 3 uses SVG graphics. This means that diagrams are ‘drawn’ on screen according to instructions instead of being a fixed image pasted in. Included in those instructions is the text for the diagram, right there in the text of the book. That has two benefits:
    • a diagram’s captions and labels are searchable like the rest of the text, from within the book as well as on the web in services like Google Books
    • because they are embedded in the text, diagrams and captions will always appear in the right place instead of re-flowing off somewhere else and getting separated.
  4. Better bells and whistles: all these things combine to make it easier to add things to help or entertain the reader. Instead of adding one photo, why not add a slide show? Maybe a diagram would be clearer if it was animated to show how it works. Want to know where Sherlock Holmes found the body? Here it is on Google maps. Ebooks will be able to be more like apps.
  5. Better metadata: the book’s details are included in the ePub 3 file showing title, author(s), publisher, date etc in a way that a computer can read (ie not just painted in the artwork of the cover). Based on this information, and its links to further information, the computer can classify the book appropriately in its database. Thus we will have the self-cataloguing book. That will make life easier for librarians

All we need now is lots of affordable ereaders to enjoy these lovely new ebooks on.