Ebooks Outsell Print! Putting Headlines in Context

Widely-discussed book news this week: Amazon UK’s report that ebook sales have outstripped the sales of all print formats combined.

According to unaudited figures released by [Amazon UK] on Monday, since the start of 2012, for every 100 hardback and paperback book sold on its site, customers downloaded 114 ebooks.

This generated many headlines announcing that Ebooks Beat Print!, along with the usual “Print is dead!” commentary (regretful or jubilant, according to bias). However, Amazon is famous for reporting statistics without providing the details necessary to fully evaluate them–just as the media is famous for disseminating a juicy sound bite even if it doesn’t really represent the actual news story. Herewith, a bit of context.

– The figures are unaudited. According to The Guardian, “Amazon has refused to release audited figures for its digital book sales, something it does for printed books. It told the Guardian that the company would not discuss future policy on the matter.”

– Lost in many of the headlines: the report comes from Amazon UK, not Amazon overall. I admit this is kind of a bagatelle, especially since Amazon US reported similar news back in 2011–but still, accuracy is important. Call me a pedant.

– I can’t help wondering how much of a sales bump was provided by the phenomenal popularity of the tiresomely over-hyped 50 Shades trilogy.

– Free ebooks were excluded from Amazon’s calculations, which is good…but how many of the ebooks were Kindle exclusives, available only at Amazon? Even if it’s only a small percentage of the whole, the inclusion of books that can be bought nowhere else would tend to skew the figures.

– Amazon has the most popular single ebook reading device (Kindle owned about 40% of the market as of the end of 2011) and an even more commanding chunk of the ebook market (around 60% right now, according to most sources). Beyond the still-rapidly-growing enthusiasm for ebooks, these factors certainly contributed to ebook sales dominance at Amazon.

– Amazon is the world’s major vendor of ebooks…but it’s just one of many vendors of print books. In the USA, for instance, ebooks had become “the single dominant format in adult fiction sales” by the end of 2011–but as of January 2012, the sale of print formats was still more than triple that of ebooks across all trade categories.

– Last but not least, for those who fear that print is dead, or wish it had died some time ago, I came across an interesting article this week about the Book Industry Study Group’s ongoing survey of consumers’ attitudes toward ebooks. The latest figures from this survey reveal that print is seeing gains as ebook consumers diversify their buying habits.

The percentage of e-book consumers who “exclusively or mostly” purchased book content in e-book format decreased from nearly 70% in August 2011 to 60% in May 2012…During the same period, the percentage of survey respondents who had no preference for either e-book or print formats, or who bought some genres in e-book format and others in print, rose from 25% to 34%.

This suggests that, for the moment, we’re heading toward a hybrid market in which ebooks are just one more book format for consumers to choose from–not the doom of print, nor a cause célèbre, but simply another container for text. Of course, we’re still on the cusp of a paradigm shift, so no one can say what may happen in the far future. But with that caveat, I think print books and ebooks will co-exist relatively peaceably for some time to come…Amazon statistics notwithstanding.


  1. I saw this advert for Amazon, sorry, 'news story' in the Guardian but didn't waste my time reading it. 'Twas illustrated with a still from one of the Twilight films, under the flimsy excuse that the Twilight books are available in eformats. Two adverts for the space of one!

  2. I'm quite new at this. I have finished a series of storybooks and in the process of finding an agent/publisher. I could not believe the scores of self/subsidy publishers on the net, and all of them tout e-books. I just want to be published the old-fashioned way with a professional reviewing, and hopefully appreciating, my work. I'm steering clear of e-books. Thank you for this article. It has reinforced what I have known all along. For me, it will be better getting published the old-fashioned way.

  3. This is exactly why Media Literacy should be a required part of every child's curriculum beginning in 8th grade and continuing through high school.

    The well-honed ability to produce a press release with valid (but nearly meaningless) statistics is not unique to Amazon. Virtually every communication by any political party does the same thing, and most large companies know how to do this. So do many small companies.

    OTOH, even wildly skewed statistics can be informative, once you understand them. (But not always.) It is usually just as shortsighted to throw out such information unanalyzed it as it is to believe it wholesale.

  4. Honestly? I think the really misleading thing that authors will read into this impressive figure is:"This means that all *I* have to do is to publish *my* book in this format, and then everyone will automatically buy it!"

    Unfortunately, I've been seeing this attitude a lot. A piece of writing does not become any better just because it's published as an ebook, and it definitely doesn't mean that people will be hypnotized into buying it.

  5. Amazon is very good at making press releases that seem to say something but that really tell you nothing. Read any Amazon news release 5 or 6 times and really think about what is behind the headline.

    In a similar way, consider one of the quotes in the main article. That is "The percentage of e-book consumers who "exclusively or mostly" purchased book content in e-book format decreased from nearly 70% in August 2011 to 60% in May 2012…"

    Since the number of people with ebook readers has increased in the same period, this isn't evidence of individual people changing their buying habits. Instead it is evidence that the eBook market is changing as it expands.

    The first group to buy eBook readers and eBooks preferred to read eBooks over paper. Other people, who put off buying an eBook reader for a year, are more likely to read a mix of paper and electronic books. This is hardly surprising.

  6. I have 7 full book shelves that take up a great part of my 2 bedroom apartment. I try to buy eBooks simply because I have run out of physical room.

    Thanks for the informative article as always. May this week hold only happy surprises for you, Roland

  7. Thanks for this. It's good to get some background. It's disgraceful the way that the mainstream media simply reproduces press releases and calls it reporting. However, the line in your post that struck me most forcibly was this one, "as of January 2012, the sale of print formats was still more than triple that of ebooks across all trade categories." This puts ebooks at something less than 25% of the overall market. Two years ago, ebooks were just 5% of the overall market. That's a huge increase in just two years.

  8. I've noticed that one of your 'Thumbs Down' publishers (Tate) don't publish on Kindle (which begs the question of what that $4,000 'marketing' contribution is actually getting the authors).

    Hopefully, headlines like this will steer authors away from companies that don't publish on Kindle.

    Of course, if they were astute authors, they wouldn't be publishing with Tate in the first place…

  9. I'm one of those people who buys both. I love my nook tablet, but I've also purchased a number of print books. The thing the tablet has done for me is encourage me to buy books I'm not going to read right away, since they won't be sitting in a dusty pile on my nightstand or taking up space in my already full shelves. I am also more inclined to be reading 2-3 books at a time than I was before I bought the nook.

    If other people are the same way, e-readers may be increasing overall book sales and not simply eating away at print.

  10. I've bought maybe 20 ebooks this year and the only print books I've bought were from a Bargain Books store or used book store.

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