Of Online Book Sales (and Pies)

There’s no question that online retailing has radically changed the way books are bought and sold. A recent Neilsen Online survey, quoted by BBC News, reveals that more books are sold on the Internet than any other product. As of early 2008, a full 41% of Internet users had bought books online–and those numbers are expected to continue to rise.

That sounds impressive. But what does it mean in terms of actual sales? When you slice the bookselling pie into its component parts–chain stores, independent stores, book clubs, the Internet–how big a slice belongs to the Internet?

This is an important question, because “the power of the Internet” is something that is often invoked in discussions of bookselling, without the nature of that power ever really being defined. Micropresses with limited distribution, for instance, may encourage writers to believe that their books’ lack of brick-and-mortar bookstore presence isn’t a significant handicap, because “so many books are bought online these days.” Ditto for self-publishing services that sell mainly via the Internet, and self-publishing boosters working to convert others to their point of view.

Let’s look at the numbers.

In 1999, according to data compiled by NPD Marketing Group (quoted in Wired), the Internet accounted for 5.45% of all books sold in the USA.

In 2001, Ipsos (quoted in the New York Times) found that the market share for online book sales had grown to 7%.

In 2004, the Internet slice of the bookselling pie had “stabilized” at 10-12% of the total market, according to analysts at research firm CL King & Associates (again quoted in the New York Times).

In 2007, that share appears nearly to have doubled. Bowker’s PubTrack Consumer (quoted in PW) estimates that 20% of all US book purchases are made on the Internet. In the UK, according to Bookmarketing Limited’s Books and the Consumer survey (quoted in Publishing News Online), 17% of all book revenue comes from online purchases.

Clearly, Internet book sales have become substantial (if not as substantial as some people would like to believe), and the trend is toward growth. To get the most out of this information, however, you need to turn it around. If 20% of books are sold online, 80% are sold elsewhere. To achieve volume sales, therefore, your book must be in as many “elsewheres” as possible–including brick-and-mortar outlets, which as of this writing still substantially outpace the Internet. Chain stores alone account for 33% of the US book market, according to PW, and in the UK, according to Publishing News Online, chain store sales are “greater than through supermarkets and the Internet combined.”

Of course, the only thing that’s certain in the world of books and publishing is that things change. It may be that years from now, online book sales will dominate the market. Right now, though, as important as the Internet is for book sales, it’s just one piece of a complicated puzzle.

Remember that the next time someone tries to tell you that bookstore presence doesn’t matter because Internet sales are so huge, or that Internet availability is all you need because it exposes your book to an audience of millions. An audience of millions means nothing if no one knows your book exists. And that will be true even if the Internet eventually gobbles up the entire bookselling pie.


  1. Many people, like me, live too far away from any bookstore to go ‘shopping’ there. When I do finally drive the hour to my closest B&N, I definitely take a targeted list with me, but sometimes I have NO clue where they shelve the darn things! I’d rather have just one huge section of fiction in alphabetical order than grouped by categories that make no sense to me.

    And they are arranged so poorly, spine-out, and packed in so tightly…it really isn’t conducive for shopping.

    Amazon, on the other hand, allows me to just click on an author’s name and find ALL their books, find books others bought that may interest me, read reviews, peruse people’s ‘best’ lists, etc. I have access to a lot more information.

    I think that 20% figure will definitely grow b/c the ‘new’ generation of kids who grew up with the Internet will be buying online.

  2. If you don’t have time to be part of your publisher’s marketing campaign, you definitely don’t have time to market your self-published book, which you would have to do entirely yourself, with no guidance or support from anyone.

  3. Thank you (from an author’s standpoint) for pointing out these statistics. It can help us keep a better balance when we read how many blogs, websites, blog tours, book trailers, MySpace/Facebook sites, YouTube trailers and podcasts we must have to sell books. Not necessarily! Books are being sold elsewhere too!

  4. Are the titles that are sold online broken down by any sort of categories?

    If this information exists, I wasn’t able to find it. I also wasn’t able to discover whether the most recent online sales figures were for new books only, or whether they included used book sales.

    The problem with the kind of statistics you are citing is that they ignore an important point. While 80% of books sold might be sold in bricks and mortar stores, this reflects only total books sold, not the number of titles sold.

    That’s a good point, though I would guess that the number of titles sold in brick and mortar stores is a good deal higher than your estimate.

    However, “20% of books sold online” is not just a statistic–it’s a preference. Vast numbers of books are easily and conveniently available online–yet most books are still bought offline. So far, people would still rather buy books in brick-and-mortar stores. If you’re publishing a book that has little or no offline availability, this preference is likely to work against you, no matter how hard you market.

    This is fine if you’re aware of it and prepared for it–if you go into it with your eyes open. But many writers simply assume that as long as people know about a book, they’ll be as willing to buy it from Amazon as from their local B&N. But those statistics suggest otherwise, at least to me.

    For the record, I buy most of my books online–it’s quick, it’s convenient, I don’t have to change out of my pajamas. I’ve never been a big fan of wandering around in bookstores–I also generally know what I want to buy before I go shopping.

  5. I am always amazed at these “horror stories” unpublished writers have heard about trad publishing. I’m with Harry. Where in the world are you getting these ideas from!?!?! Publishers FORCING you to quit your job and tour? Please. Most writers would kill to be given the opportunity to do a tour, and if they have another job, they organize their vacation around the one week they may go to three or four cities.

    I am nothing even close to a “top 40” author — firmly in the midlist. And yet, you are likely to find a copy (if not several) of at least one of my titles in any chain bookstore, and a good deal of the independents.

    Like barrettmanor, I’m interested to know what these percentages account for. I’d wager that a good chunk of this 20% of all book sales refers to expensive non fiction (think text books), bulk discount buying (think libraries buying hardcover from amazon because with free shipping and discounts, it’s cheaper), and rare or out of print titles (i.e. small press that can’t be gotten elsewhere, and other rare titles).

    My online sales aren’t even measurable. A miniscule fraction of the whole.

  6. Are the titles that are sold online broken down by any sort of categories?

    I’m just curious because I generally don’t buy books online unless that’s the only way I can get them. Or, in the case of textbooks, that’s the best way to get them at a significant discount.

    I enjoy going to a bookstore and browsing through books, and while they’ve tried, Amazon has yet to duplicate that experience.

  7. Hi,

    The problem with the kind of statistics you are citing is that they ignore an important point. While 80% of books sold might be sold in bricks and mortar stores, this reflects only total books sold, not the number of titles sold.

    The B&M stores increasingly stock only top selling titles in each category. Though they may stock umpty-thousand books, many are top sellers of years gone by, or the top genre paperbacks which always make it to stores but only for a month or so.

    So that 80% may reflect the sales of the top 5% of titles. Ninety-five percent of titles–including quite a few that sell in decent numbers—may be sold almost exclusively online.

    I was a successful self-publisher in the 1990s. Several of my books got into one chain, Borders, back when it followed the policy of stocking small press books which it ended. One of my titles got into large format B&Ns also. But most of my many thousands of book sales were through Amazon.

    And the returns I got from the chain were horrendous. Boxes and boxes of dirty books returned for full credit and I could only appeal so many of them to Ingram. I got no returns from Amazon.

    In niches that only have small shelves in the chains, even a lot of category bestsellers published by large publishers stay on the shelves for only a few months. They continue to sell strongly on Amazon, especially those with strong Word of Mouth.

    So unless you are writing a book that has Top 40 potential, the Internet is where you’re likely to sell most of your books.

    The real issue is how are you going to let hundreds of thousands of people learn about your book? With a highly targetted value-rich web site I figure I sold one book for every 500 site visitors, or about .2%.

    If you can solve the problem of reaching your target audience, if your target audience actively communicates about its interests online, which allows Word of Mouth to grow, and if your book is good enough to excite that audience, you can sell decent numbers with an online only policy. But that’s tough to pull off.

    I’m gearing up to do a new Web sales-only book but my expectations for it are very modest. Selling any kind of book is much tougher now than it was a decade ago.

  8. The brick & mortar locations only stock debut authors if the TP has invested heavily (or promised to) in the promotion of the new work.

    This simply isn’t true. When I spent about a year reading debut novels (on Miss Snark’s recommendation), pretty much all the ones I wanted to buy were available in brick and mortar stores.

    The ones that weren’t had come out of a small press and received less distribution or were more than two years old.

    A published (TP) author that I know is making peanuts & travels all over promoting her 7 or 8 books.

    I’ll wager that she’s making more than self-published authors who never went the traditional route.

    Besides, being a writer doesn’t pay very well. That’s the nature of the business.

    I couldn’t walk away from that for the sake of meeting a publisher’s promotion ‘requirements’.

    Have you ever met an author who was told by their publisher that they have to “walk away” from a solid day job to promote their books? Have you ever heard of that happening? “We’re paying you an $8,000 advance on this novel so you have to quit your day job to promote it.”


    They aren’t crazy people and they aren’t monsters. Honest.


  9. Traditional or Self Publishing? I’ve been debating this for 2 months having a thoroughly polished (& critiqued to death) ms in hand, ready to take a step. I haven’t queried at all – so the SP option is not a ‘throw in the towel’ response to rejection.

    TP or SP – Regardless the path chosen, the ‘author’ has to market the work if he/she expects sales. In both cases the product is available online. SP books are not stocked by bookstore chains. The brick & mortar locations only stock debut authors if the TP has invested heavily (or promised to) in the promotion of the new work. How significant an advantage would that really be for a newbie if the book received typical promotion?

    Frankly, I don’t know if I’m up for the effort to be published traditionally. A published (TP) author that I know is making peanuts & travels all over promoting her 7 or 8 books.

    Then there’s the problem of my ‘real job’. I have a very solid career that pays very well. I couldn’t walk away from that for the sake of meeting a publisher’s promotion ‘requirements’. That situation in itself would (or should) disqualify me as a potential client for any decent agent. (Being dishonest would not be an option that I’d consider.)

    The long winded point? I’m still confused. It seems like SP is the way for ME to go. Hopefully the story & the marketing effort will pay some dividends.

    By the way – The blog is great. Your new posts pop up on my homepage & I’ve learned enough from y’all to have advanced beyond the ‘dolt’ stage. Thanks for what you do. Now let me get back to my second guessing. JP

  10. Not to mention the exposure benefit of being in brick-and-mortar stores. I’m sure I’m not alone in buying books on-line that I first discovered while browsing through a bookstore.

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