At first glance, it was surprising news from the recent Digital Book World conference in New York City: Traditional hardcover book sales had overtaken e-book numbers for the first time since 2012.
That’s according to Jonathan Stolper, senior vice president and global managing director for Nielsen’s book ratings, in a keynote address to the conference two weeks ago, as reported by Publishers Weekly.
Indeed, another recent report from the Association of American Publishers noted print sales showing year-to-year growth from January through August. Old-school print, it would appear, was making a comeback.
Skeptics, however, were quick to note you can’t judge a book sales analysis by its cover.
Data Guy, a pseudonym for the well-regarded data analyst who co-founded the numbers-crunching website AuthorEarnings.com, has some figures of his own.
“What we have here are people looking at the partial picture, and drawing the big picture from it. Still, Nielsen is closer to (getting) the complete picture than anyone out there,” he said.
He noted PubTrack, which was acquired by Nielsen, collects data from the 30 largest publishers.
Left out of the mix for most purchase charts is bookselling behemoth Amazon, which not only moves the most print books in America, but also is a digital giant for Kindle sales. Because it owns Audible.com, which sells its audio books through not just Amazon but also retailers such as Apple, Amazon also accounts for almost all of the U.S. sales in that category.
Yet with Amazon stomping the big-box retailer competition such as Barnes & Noble and Wal-Mart, something unexpected has happened: Small, independent bookstores are finding more room to grow.
“Even though 70 percent of book sales are online, our brick-and-mortar stores around the country have seen an uptick,” said Susan Hans O’Connor, owner of Sewickley, Pa.’s Penguin Bookshop.
Granted, she said, it’s a smaller piece of the big pie, but with sales up by 10 percent, they are happy to have it. Getting readers into the shop is a matter of promotion, and 2016 was a good year for Penguin.
“We had a lot of big authors come in (for appearances): Stephen King, David Baldacci, Gayle Forman. The reason they agreed to come in is, instead of going to the big cities, they support independent bookstores.”
The picture was similar across Pittsburgh. “Sales were up by January of 2017 over January of 2016,” said Dan Iddings, owner of the independent Classic Lines bookstore. Like O’Connor, he said he didn’t have exact figures yet.
“Our sales are up across the board. We are sort of a general purpose bookstore, best-sellers in every category. We still have some used books in our inventory, but we have been phasing that out in the past year,” Iddings added.
Personalized service is a draw, he said, noting the store’s bookmarks bear the motto: “We have the book you didn’t know you wanted.”
“We need to think of ourselves as not just consumers, but unique communities,” O’Connor said. “We appreciate the support of our communities.”
Data Guy’s day job is data analysis in the video game industry. He speaks numbers the way others embrace French or Italian. He’s also an author, and it would be folly to risk running afoul of the media giant, hence the secret identity.
He created Author Earnings with fellow writer Hugh Howey.
Such is his credibility, he often speaks at book industry conferences and has been quoted by mainstream media outlets. His methodology takes existing figures from traditional sources but adds in data “scraped” from booksellers’ websites, hence the Amazon estimates.
Here is his general take on the book market breakdown:
— Fifty-five percent of all trade book purchases in the U.S. were Amazon sales in 2016. Trade refers to professional publishers of titles for the general public.
— Forty-one percent of all Nielsen BookScan-tracked print books purchased in the U.S. were bought online through Amazon.com. Add in the remaining 15 percent of traditional print sales untracked by BookScan plus an additional 17 million independent CreateSpace (a self-publishing site owned by Amazon) sales, and Amazon accounts for 37 percent of all print books purchased in the U.S.
— Eighty-two percent of all e-books purchased in the U.S. were Amazon Kindle titles.
His extensive slides take into account that there are large numbers of books being sold — in print and digital — that don’t bear identifying tracking codes known as ISBNs. For example, he estimates U.S. consumers spent $550 million yearly on e-books that don’t bear these codes.
Although most of these titles are self-published, about 12 percent of traditionally published e-books lack ISBNs. These are published through smaller, boutique houses. In general, books lacking ISBNs are not included in market sales figures.
He calls the self-publishing boom a “phenomenon” of the industry. The outdated image of self-publishing — the author setting up a card table of books at a Saturday farmers market — has been replaced by a robust online store that includes niche space on Amazon.
The adult romance genre, for example, is huge in nontraditional publishing. About 55 percent of all such titles online are independent, self-published. The average e-book cost is $2.79. These little sales might not sound like much, but they add up.
Other underserved genres include African-American fiction, where 71 percent of all formats are indie self-published. The traditional Big Five publishers (HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, Hachette, and Simon & Schuster) accounted for just 4 percent of this subgenre’s e-book sales.
Thanks to price adjustments through the past 19 months, it appears that the more intriguing comparisons are not “print vs. e-book,” but bricks-and-mortar sales vs. online. Amazon — which launched physical retail stores in Portland, Ore., San Diego and Seattle, with plans for five more in upcoming months — offers customers print and digital sales but also showcases its tech products such as the Echo home assistant, Kindle tablet and Fire digital streaming device.
Independent booksellers, O’Connor said, have no choice but to take up the challenge in a “scary landscape.” But she said, “On the flip side, I don’t have to worry about Amazon coming here with bricks and mortar on Beaver Street, because they’re all about money. Our neighborhood isn’t that big.”