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Posts tagged ‘ebook sales’

Publishing’s Bellwether

Welcome to the farm, today, where I’m leaning on my oak crook and feeling the gentle breeze in my hair and watching the lambs cavort. I’m also keeping a weather-eye on the sky, and listening to the animals as they move from place to place. Amanda’s dealing with real life, and I’m lost in a memory… 

A bellwether, in shepherding terms, is the leader of the flock. It would either be a sheep or a goat, depending on the sort of herd (and some weight given to the native intelligence of the animal individually) and it wore a bell on a collar. The bellwether was the critter always out in front, and the rest of the herd would slowly drift in his wake, nibbling and straying, but driven by their instincts to stay with the bell, with the herd. The shepherd (or goatherd. Anyone read Heidi, rather than watching the saccharine movie? Did you know there are sequels?) would follow along after the bell, keeping an eye out for strays or lambs that didn’t know enough to follow the bellwether.

In business terms, the bellwether is the indicator of a trend. In publishing, it currently seems to be ebooks. I posted Dorothy Grant’s post about the implications of the recent Author Earnings report on my facebook timeline, and got a comment: “her article is not correct in its specifics. The graphs are about Kindle ebook sales, not books in general.” My immediate answer, which then led to this post, was ‘That’s because there is NO way to get accurate data on books in general, so the bellwether is ebooks, which are trackable.’

See, here’s the thing. Print books are, in theory, externally trackable through the Nielsen BookScan data, which is notoriously unreliable. In theory, publishers ought to know what their sales numbers are, but there are two problems with that data. First, they aren’t going to release proprietary and sensitive information to the public. Secondly, publishers themselves often rely on BookScan, and as Dorie Clark writing for the Harvard Business Review put it “Shockingly” slow and outmoded: “Publishing through a traditional house? Most of us get weekly Nielsen BookScan reports—courtesy of Amazon—and sales figures every six months from our publisher.” Studies compiling data from both BookScan and the Association of American Publishers have ‘holes’ in their data. “The AAP and Nielsen data, while providing useful information that can point to important trends, does have some holes. As mentioned, AAP data doesn’t cover the entire industry, while Nielsen BookScan data doesn’t cover e-books. And lack of reliable e-book data is the most important omission.”

And here is where the most recent Author Earnings Report comes in. “Here at AE, over the last seven quarters we have steadily built up a comprehensive database of quarterly cross-sectional snapshots of the Kindle store, each of which captures between 45% and 60% of Amazon’s daily ebook sales. And while Amazon’s Kindle store alone doesn’t comprise the entire US ebook market, it does account for 67% of all traditionally-published ebook sales…”

While that might not seem enough, as the report points out, it is better than the claims being made on less data by PubTrack.

“The confusion is worsened by Nielsen’s misleading claims about their new PubTrack data products, which sell statistics about the US ebook market. PubTrack collects ebook unit-sales data from “a panel of over thirty US publishers,” according to Nielsen, who then sells that data back to the publishing industry at large. The fact that those Nielsen ebook sales numbers come from only 30 publishers, however, doesn’t stop Nielsen from claiming that their PubTrack numbers represent “85% of the nation’s eBook sales” and drawing broad and unsubstantiated conclusions from them.”

So if we go back to the bellwether metaphor, and the shepherd trying to keep track of his flock, we suddenly see that print data is like a sheep wrapped up in an invisibility cloak, trying to avoid his annual haircut.

Shrek the sheep, who hid to avoid being fleeced...

Shrek the sheep, who hid to avoid being fleeced…

I ran across an article very recently, and as I was assembling the material for this post about sheep, goats, and books, I knew I had to include the concept of scapegoats. In the publishing industry, the scapegoats are the books and authors that pay for other books and authors to be published. Oh, they aren’t given any choice, not any more than the goat which was symbolically bound with the sins of the people, and then sent into the wilderness to die alone.

Instead, the popular, best-selling books, are bound with the production and promotion costs of the prestigious and award winning books. “Washington Post critic Ron Charles reviews the kinds of books that get nominated for literary awards. These are not the blockbusters, the books written by the likes of Stephen King and Nora Roberts that make millions. Charles knows that. Even so, he was dismayed when he saw a story about the sales figures for the novels long-listed for the Man Booker. The list included The Green Road by Irish author Anne Enright, who’s won the award before. “When I saw that Anne Enright — [who] I think of as giant in literary fiction, beloved around the world — could only sell 9,000 copies in the U.K. I was shocked, that’s really low,” he says.”

The numbers for the potential Man Booker Prize winners? Tyler’s book has sold 20,102 copies in total across all editions through Nielsen BookScan. As well as being the biggest selling book of the Man Booker Dozen, it is also the book which has seen the most copies sold since the longlist was announced in July – selling 7,680 copies since then. Most of this is down to the release of the paperback last week, which sold 7,115 copies.

Anne Enright’s The Green Road (Jonathan Cape) has sold 2,355 extra copies since being longlisted, for a total of 8,938.

Hanya Yanigahara’s A Little Life (Picador), which was published three weeks after the longlist announcement, has sold a strong 7,542 copies since 13th August. Yanigahara’s book is currently the favourite to win the prize at William Hill, with odds of 2/1 at William Hill, while Paddy Power is offering odds of 9/5.

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James (Oneworld Publications) has sold 6,694 copies across all editions in total, more than double (3,471 extra) what it had sold before the announcement.

Andrew O’Hagan’s The Illuminations (Faber & Faber), has sold 457 copies since the longlist was announced, for a total of 3,273 copies.

Lila by Marilynne Robinson (Virago) has also sold strongly with 12,184 copies total for the hardback, but only 625 copies are from after it was included on the longlist.

Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island (Jonathan Cape) has sold an additional 589 copies, going from 922 before the announcement to 1,511.

The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota (Picador) had sold 413 copies before the announcement and is now on 1,302, an increase of 889 copies and Anna Smaill’s The Chimes (Sceptre) has risen almost as much – from 411 to 1,008.” 

So the books that pay off for the publisher obviously subsidize the books that are published solely on ‘literary merit’ and the scapegoat trots off blithely into the desert to take his chances with the fickle public. With the rise of Indie Publishing, the scapegoat is no longer a necessary thing. No one can force an independent to bear the burdens of his less fortunate fellow authors, who write for awards rather than to sell books and make money.

The flock is hearing that bell jingle, and they are changing their path to follow him toward the good green pastures. “It’s a world where authors with plenty of Big 5 sales experience choose to say, ‘You know what, I’m not playing this game any more.’ Where authors make a positive choice to walk away from the terms offered by good, regular publishers. This new era of publishing is one where authors have a meaningful choice.”

I spent a couple of years as an apprentice shepherdess when I was a teenager. I grew up with a small flock of goats, and I can assure you that not all sheep are dumb, the flock instinct much-mocked is a vital survival tool for them. Goats, kept with sheep, quickly become the trouble-makers, the leaders of the flock, which is why one is usually the bellwether. The goats, in the publishing world, are the early-adopter Indie authors, getting through the fences any way they can to reach the less-worn down grass. The goats know where the noms are, and the sheep will follow them around the gatekeepers. In publishing, we follow that bell to the market.

And finally, don’t stop listening for the bellwether. Today, it’s ebooks and Amazon. But take your attention off the market indicators, and you might lose track of the flock and get too far from the market, getting lost in the process. Amazon might not always provide the greenest pasture, so pay attention to the industry blogs, keep up with the data, and don’t be afraid to move closer to the leading edge. Maybe you can be the bellwether for a while.

 

Of Apple and Amazon and e-book sales

Sitting here this morning, wondering why I dreamed about having to bug-out because of an invasion of man-eating spiders (which, btw, are a lot worse than zombies because spiders can hide in much smaller places), I scanned the publishing news for the last few days and found myself wondering if we’ve stepped back in time. No, a quick glance at the calendar confirmed we haven’t. So I guess it is just more of the same-old-same-old while everyone waits to see what happens with the public hearing on copyright (and, yes, I will get to that but it will be next week. There’s a lot of material to wade through and I’m just now starting to feel well enough to do that sort of heavy reading)

The first example of how there are some in publishing that just don’t want to give up even in the face of overwhelming odds, is Apple. Even after losing the price fixing suit filed by the Department of Justice — and this after being abandoned by most of its named co-defendants when they settled the case instead of going to trial — Apple continues to fight. It now is trying to get the class action law suit against it dismissed. Now, most of the time, I wouldn’t think twice about this sort of thing. This isn’t one of those times. Apple is basically using the same arguments it used in the price fixing case to get this suit dismissed — arguments that obviously didn’t work. If you’ve already been told by a judge that your actions were not “pro-competitive and beneficial to consumers,” why are you still arguing it?

The only explanation I can come up with is that Apple simply isn’t used to losing. A company with very deep pockets, it rarely comes out on the short end of the stick. I have a feeling Apple will soon find itself on the short end again. Judge Cotes has already ruled once on this assertion and I don’t see her accepting it now. But Apple being Apple, they will keep trying and we will keep watching. More than that, considering how slowly cases proceed through the courts, the supervision period set out by Judge Cotes will probably have run its course before Apple exhausts all its appeals and then everything will be moot anyway.

Then there’s this article in Publisher’s Weekly about how the slowing e-book sales are a “mixed blessing”. When I saw the blurb for the article, I almost didn’t click over to the full piece. Part of me expected it to be another post extolling the fact that e-books really are nothing more than a flash in the pan and now that the “ooooh shiny” has worn off, folks will get back to buying print books. Fortunately for the continued existence of my laptop, it wasn’t all about that. The article does point out that you can’t keep up with triple digit sales increases over a long period of time. It also notes, as several of us here at MGC have, that the initial leap in sales had a lot to do with people buying e-book readers and tablets and getting books to go on them. That’s the sort of thing you see with any new tech. Just watch the increase in sales of video games over the next few months as the PS4 and XBox One — and the associated new gen games — hit the market.

However, this article — like so many others — is hampered by the fact that it is using figures that are no more accurate than BookScan sales numbers. That means whole markets are being left out as are a huge amount of indie and small press titles. Does this mean e-books sales haven’t slowed? Probably not. What I would bet on, however, is that they haven’t slowed as much as the study alleges and that means the gap between print sales and digital sales probably isn’t narrowing as much as is being assumed.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying e-book sales are continuing to rising at triple digit levels. Nor am I saying the print section of the industry is doomed. My issue is that articles like this, based on data provided by third parties hired by interested parties in the debate, never give the full story. We don’t know what sources were used to determine sales. We don’t know if they used only sales from major publishers or from only members of AAP. We all know that studies like this can be manipulated and being the suspicious person that I am, I need to know the background information before accepting such a study at face value.

Then I came across this article from Dear Author and I thought that, for cone, I was going to have to disagree with them. But I can’t because I agree. The basic set up is this: a new e-book comes out and you buy it right away because you like the description or you’ve read other things by the author, etc. Being an e-book and (probably) written by an indie, you don’t mind dropping $4.99 or so for it. After all, you know the author’s work or you checked out the preview and it is less than that half-caf venti mocha you planned on for the afternoon.

So you click the pretty gold button on the product page and wait for the e-book to be downloaded to your e-reader or tablet and go off happily to read your new book.

Only to discover a few days later that the author has put the book on sale for 99 cents.

Now, $4.oo isn’t going to break me but, I guarantee you, I’m not happy to discover that I have just been penalized for being an early purchaser of the book. We’re not talking about a book that’s been out for months or even years. We’re talking about a book that has been out just a week or so. As Dear Author says, “Those on the pricing side can use price promotions to drive sales, but to do so at the cost of alienating loyal fans for not much long term gain seems counterintuitive.”

And that brings up the whole question of just when and how to promote your work which, in turns, brings up the question of do you go exclusively with one retailer or not. Amazon offers some great promotional programs for indies and small presses — if you go exclusively with Amazon for at least three months. If you ask three authors what they think about “limiting” yourself this way and you will get three different answers. One author will tell you that to go exclusive is to cut out sales venues and that means fewer sales. The next author will tell you that you should consider it but only after you’ve had your work out for at least six months or a year on all outlets to see where your best sales are. The third will tell you to definitely do it because Amazon is the gorilla in the marketplace and you can choose to not have DRM which means your buyers can convert their e-books into whatever format they want.

The correct answer is there is no correct answer. You have to decide for yourself what works best and, to do that, you need to know where your sales come from. You also have to consider how quickly you get paid. Then there is how quickly sales channels are updated so you can see what your sales trends are. But to simply discount an option because it comes from “evil Amazon” is to potentially cut off a viable promotional tool that can increase your sales.

Now, if the other outlets want to compete, they need to offer similar tools for authors. Frankly, I don’t want to write my book online using a retailers interface. I don’t want to wait weeks and months for a book to get through the review process (which I’ve been doing on a couple of titles and have finally pulled them and am resubbing them with some strategic changes in tagging and descriptions). I don’t want to risk having my books pulled from sales because someone thinks they are erotica based on a tag someone besides me put on them.

In other words, it is still up to us to keep on top of what is happening in the business. We have to educate ourselves about trends and programs and apps and all other things that can make our job easier and bring us into closer contact with our readers.