The Future is Now…No, Wait a Minute…Not Yet

For the last 12 years, there has been so much buzz about internet bookselling in general and Amazon.com in specific that you would think  community-based bookselling (bricks and mortar) was dead. At the cocktail parties in Berkeley and Silicon Valley, when the conversation turns to books, the subject seems to be: Amazon, Amazon, Amazon, and Amazon.  The demise of Border’s this year and the ongoing decline of independent bookselling that has been talked to death in the media would tend to confirm this opinion. The conventional wisdom seems to be that a revolution has occurred in retail and that the vast majority of books are now purchased on-line.

 
Similarly in the last two years book lovers inside and outside the industry have been talking, almost exclusively, about the rise of e-books. E-book gurus and digital cheerleaders would lead us to believe that the 500 year Gutenberg era has ended and that print on paper books are dead.

 
A few weeks ago I did a blog post about the first report of Bookstats, the new statistical survey commissioned by the Association of American Publishers. Before Bookstats, book industry statistics were pretty sketchy and generally limited to a few top publisher members of AAP. The new Bookstats report was based on sales from 1963 companies with a combined sales of $15.3 billion.

 
And what we learn from these statistics is really rather astonishing. Just looking at trade book sales by channel, we learn that online sales are 14.3%.  In contrast, sales in physical retail stores (which includes, indies, chains, mass merchants and others) are 40.8%. The statistics also list sales to jobbers and wholesalers (who in turn sell books to retailers, mostly physical store retailers) as 30.1%. These figures tell us that online bookselling has a long way to go before it catches up with bookselling in the physical world.

 
That said, it should be noted that sales at retail bookstores declined 7.8% between 2009 and 2010, while online sales have increased 46.1%. So we see that  changes are afoot and the future will likely be quite different. Looking at the rise of e-books, we see a similar disconnect between the statistics and the conventional wisdom.  The report shows that e-book sales in 2010 were only 6.2% of market share. But again we learn that while almost all physical book formats have declined between 2009 and 2010, e-books grew by 201%. The figures show that the future is not yet…but maybe soon.

 
The statistics don’t include sales of self-published titles, either in paper or e-book format. Again the gurus have announced the end of “legacy publishing”. They tell us that the great commercial publishers are dinosaurs from another era and are collapsing as we speak. In fact the number of self published titles has grown in the millions, and self-published e-book downloads are growing at an astounding rate. It is not clear exactly what the market share of self-published books is. We do know that most of these titles sell in the hundreds or even less. In today’s New York Times Bestseller List of the 30 bestselling books combined in all formats, none are self-published. Of the 50 bestselling books in the ebook format only 4 are self published.

 
It would seem that the death of commercial publishing, paper based books, and physical bookstores  has been greatly exaggerated.

 

 

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