E-Book Sales: Behind the Stats

There is mixed news with regard to book sales in May of this year. Store sales were down 2.6% but publisher sales were up by 9.8%. Read all the various stats here. Remember these are simply comparison of 2010 monthly numbers with 2009.

The biggest area of growth, percentage-wise, is in e-books (up 162.8%).

But let’s look at actual dollars, not percentages.

Publisher sales (according to the Association of American Publishers) were $715.3 million in May. Of that total, e-books accounted for $29.3 million…or about 4%. If this was a 162% jump over 2009, then e-book sales in May of last year were $11.2 million.

There is no question that this is a huge leap. But it still means that 96% of all sales are still in hard copy.

Many experts claim that in five years (by the year 2015) that e-books will “tip” and account for over 50% of all book sales. I’ve heard this from two major publishers (one was the head of the digital initiatives for that publisher) and from my friend Randy Ingermanson in his excellent e-zine (read pages 2-11 for his full report on the issue).

For that to happen a 100% growth rate would have to be sustained. That would mean 2011 would have e-books at 8% of sales, 2012 at 16% of sales, 2013 at 32%, etc.

I’m not arguing that it won’t happen. Just that it may not happen quite so fast. Sustaining that rate of growth is a lot harder than it looks on paper (no pun intended). Please read my earlier blog post “Is Print Dead” to go further behind these type of statistics (in that post I attempt to show that hard copy CDs still account for nearly 70% of all music sales).

I’ve written earlier that I own a Kindle and like it. I have bought a number of books for the device. And in fact have purchased many books that I already owned in paper…sort of a “best of” or “favorites” bookshelf. Why? Because I’m a collector. And having those books with me at all times is a neat thing. Plus they become searchable. It also means that I can have access to these books forever and from wherever I am. And I’m not in fear of losing books when the corner of the garage collapses in a big rain storm (true story). However, if there are a lot of people like me, then the “growth” is somewhat skewed.

I hesitantly compare this to the transition from record albums to cassette tapes to compact discs. Or the transition from VHS to DVD (and now to Blue-Ray). I suspect many of you purchased albums or movies that you already owned because you wanted them in the new format, for whatever reason. They were your favorites. So initially some of your expenditures were not for new material. Of course, eventually we began purchasing 100% of all new music or movies in the new format. And that is where the direct comparison with books breaks down.

There are legion of readers who will not convert to e-books. An amateur poll I’ve taken of folks (family, friends, professional acquaintances) has been very interesting. Most are intrigued by the Kindle device. One showed me their iPad (with an accompanying gloat). But few were ready to embrace switching from p-books (paper) to e-books (electronic). And none were prepared to go all digital any time soon.

I reiterate what I’ve said before. This is one of the most exciting times to be in this industry. The changes are rapid, they are innovative, and they are creative. Writers who can create dynamic content have nothing to fear. The consumer continues to demand great content in whatever form they can get it. Literary agents like myself, make it our job to watch these developments carefully and to continue to safeguard our client’s revenue and their ideas.

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