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.

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