Book Industry Data Remains Mysterious at Digital Book World
Day two of the Digital Book World Conference opened with a focus on data, particularly data that examines industry-wide bookselling trends. Unfortunately, it’s clear that much of this data is largely incomplete and the conclusions publishers can pull from it are shaky at best.
Michael Cader, creator of Publishers Launch, led a session that explored the industry reports available to book publishers and whether any market-wide conclusions can be drawn based on them. Cader outlined the data collection methods of three well-known industry reports: AAP Statshot, Nielsen Bookscan, and PubTrack Digital. The AAP report tracks total sales dollars earned by a select group of publishers — 1,200 in total. Nielsen measures print unit sales, which are provided by major book retailers. And finally Nielsen’s PubTrack Digital tracks ebook unit sales from a sample set of publishers, which Cader indicated was smaller than the AAP sample size.
While these reports obviously have limits with regards to their scope, Cader pointed out an interesting deficiency. None of these reports can provide a historical view of book sales in the industry. AAP Statshot, for example, originally collected data from just 25 publishers. But in 2012, they grew the sample size to 1,200. Although historical sales data for the previous year was provided for these newly added publishers, the AAP Statshot’s data is only consistent from 2011 onward, said Cader. Likewise, in 2013 Nielsen began collecting book sales data from Wal-Mart, significantly growing its pool of data.
Despite these gaps, Cader did say that some trends could be pulled from these reports. Print sales have grown in traditional publishing, but largely because of the rampant success of adult coloring books. A significant decline in young adult book sales (both in print and e) offsets this growth. Cader attributed this to the lack of a breakout YA title in 2015 as seen previously with The Hunger Games or Divergent.
The other conclusion Cader said publishers could make from this data is that ebook sales have declined significantly within traditional publishing, and that trend began in 2013. What’s unclear is what caused this decline. Cader hypothesized that the rapid growth of audiobooks could be cannibalizing ebooks sales, that the drop in YA sales damaged overall ebook sales, or that agency pricing could have had an affect on the sale of ebooks.
Cader’s talk prefaced the anonymous Data Guy’s keynote session, which promised to shed more light on book sales trends than these industry reports currently do. Data Guy and author Hugh Howey are behind the controversial quarterly Author Earnings Report, which uses automated spider software to crawl Amazon product pages to track the sales of bestselling titles. Data Guy argues that his report provides a more complete view of the industry because it pulls sales data directly from Amazon, which controls 71% of the book market.
Interestingly, Data Guy shared that in 2007 the video game industry had a similar issue in terms of tracking sales data, particularly sales data of new players in the industry – the creators of downloadable apps. He said established video game companies were blindsided by the success of apps like Angry Birds and Clash of Clans. Data Guy said he worked with companies in the video game industry to develop a report that would better track total industry sales and now uses that same methodology for tracking the book industry.
Data Guy explained that the author earnings report identifies trends that wouldn’t otherwise be visible for traditional publishers — identifying traditional publishers as the Big 5 and other mid-sized publishing houses. For example, according to Data Guy, if traditional publishers only measure their sales, it appears that the majority of book buyers pay $9.99 for an ebook, and the assumption might be that that is the ideal price. But when the sample is expanded to independent authors and smaller publishers selling ebooks on Amazon, it’s clear that $2 to $2.99 is another pricing sweet spot for ebook sales.
Likewise, Data Guy argued that when traditional publishers view their ebook sales through the lens of genre, it appears that nonfiction titles dominate, followed by thrillers and romance fiction. But when indie-published ebooks are added to the mix, the sales of romance fiction sales almost match nonfiction and thrillers are in a close third. The number of books sold in the science fiction and fantasy genre also jumps dramatically. Data Guy argued that these types of insights are invaluable for publishers, particularly when they are planning their title portfolios.
While the Data Guy’s Authors Earning report seems like the perfect antidote to the limitations of current industry reports, the methodology Data Guy utilizes remains muddied. There will be a Q&A session this afternoon with Data Guy, and I’ll be sure to attend and hopefully glean more insights about how publishers might be able to utilize this data. In the end there are still plenty of mysteries surrounding book sales data and the need for clear answers has never greater.