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.

Waterstones eReader next Spring

I’ve been longing for Waterstones to bring out an ebook reader and a better ebook shop, so I was intrigued to hear what James Daunt would say about his plans.  He was interviewed on You and Yours (BBC Radio 4, Friday 9 September), when he also explained some of the rationale behind ending Waterstones’ 3 for 2 offers.  Here are my notes of what he said on Friday.

James Daunt on a Waterstones ereader:  “We want one and we will have one, and our new owner has the means to invest in it”.   He’s been wanting to face the challenge posed by Amazon and the Kindle:  “We can do so many things better than Amazon”.  As Barnes and Noble and the Nook have proved, digital sales combined with a physical bookshop is a powerful combination that makes perfect sense.

He said Waterstones’ ereader would be at least as good as Amazon, and preferably substantially better so Waterstones will give customers a better buying experience for physical and digital books .  Timescale: Spring.

What is he reading?  Anna Funder, All That I Am, which is “fabulous”.  He loves having a job where he has to read wonderful novels, although he reads more books he needs to know about than books he chooses for pleasure.

James Daunt on the 3 for 2s:  Waterstones are not ditching the 3 for 2 “as a concept” but don’t want to penalise people who just want to buy one book.  The trouble is, that type of offer encourages “all sorts of strange behaviours other than focusing on buying the best book”.

But books only got into the 3 for 2 offer “if cheques are written” which was bad news for authors who were not subject to those deals.  Much more stimulating bookshops will result, that are not the same all across the country because bookshops should be run by their managers, not centrally.  Central buying of offers etc strangles the individuality and passion in local shops.

Is he trying to remake the Waterstones chain in his own image?  In James Daunt’s own words:  “We’ll see”.