January 2018 Report: US online book sales, Q2-Q4 2017
It has been nearly a year since our last Author Earnings report, which is probably far too long between updates. But while we haven’t said much publicly during that time, behind the scenes we’ve been super busy on the commercial side, and as a result we’ve taken our industry data and analytics capabilities to a whole new professional level.
For large publishers and other scaled industry players, this has led to a brand new source of real-time business data: a perfect complement to Bookscan, covering digital and online book sales. For authors, it means that we can now provide a far greater depth and accuracy of analysis here, pro bono, under the AuthorEarnings banner. So it’s a win-win for everyone.
But why did traditional publishers and publishing-industry analysts become so interested in our data in the first place?
Two reasons: Full-market coverage. And timeliness.
Over the past few years, traditional publishers have largely been able to navigate the digital disruption and adapt their businesses to the changing bookselling landscape with varying degrees of success. Unfortunately, the industry’s legacy sales-reporting providers, upon whom those publishers rely for data… haven’t.
Which has caused problems industry-wide.
For some book formats, these providers were still able to give decent visibility into overall sales. Print sales data from Bookscan, for instance, captures somewhere between 70%-80% of all US hardcover and paperback purchases at point of sale, giving publishers a reasonably accurate and statistically meaningful picture of which books US readers are buying in hardcover and paperback formats. And more importantly, Bookscan sales numbers for last week are available this week, to support publisher business decisions for next week.
Data reporting on the digital side of the market has been a whole different story.
Legacy data providers like PubTrack Digital and the AAP are effectively blind to vast sectors of the consumer ebook & audiobook market. And those non-traditional sectors are precisely where ebook sales have continued to grow, year after year, even as PubTrack-and-AAP-reporting publishers have seen their own ebook sales dramatically shrink. As a result, what was once a small blind spot in the industry’s online-sales numbers now blocks half the view. Data from PubTrack and the AAP is now missing two thirds of US consumer ebook purchases, and nearly half of all ebook dollars those consumers spend. (And reporting is so long-delayed–often by 4-6 months–that even if the data were more complete, it would still be useless.)
When you can only see half the market, five months after the fact, you miss a lot.
And nobody likes running their business half blind.
Which is why more and more publishers have privately sought out our data and analysis–which gives visibility into the industry in real-time, and *includes* all those untracked purchases that these other industry data providers can’t see. And not just publishers have sought our help, but also book distributors, aggregators, global consulting firms, international publishing startups, and even private-equity firms investing in or advising major transactions in the publishing space. In other words, we’ve been busy.
While these commercial efforts have been kept wholly separate from AuthorEarnings, they’ve put us in a unique position, data-wise. In the past, even when we analyzed a million top selling titles at a time, we were still only looking at a single day’s sales. But no longer.
Now we capture over a million top selling titles a day. Every day.
Our analytics run in real-time, 24/7.
Which means that if a book sold even a single online copy since April 2017, no matter whom the publisher or author, we can probably find it in our ever-growing dataset. Whether that title sold two copies yesterday or two thousand, we can see those sales. We can total them up in our dashboard. And for next week’s unreleased titles–or next month’s–we can tally up their accumulated online preorders, too.
With over 250 million rows of live ebook, audiobook, and online-print data at our fingertips, we can now, with the click of a mouse, slice & dice online book sales from last quarter, last month, or last week, any way we like. So let’s take a look back over the last three quarters of 2017, from late April thru the end of December, to see what our dashboard can tell us about which books US consumers were actually buying online during that 9-month period.
The Big Picture: 9 Months of US Online Book Sales, Captured Daily
During the last three quarters of 2017, we recorded $1.3 billion in individually tracked ebook sales, $490 million in individually tracked audiobook sales, and $3.1 billion in individually tracked online hardcover and paperback purchases. While this is not quite 100% of online sales during the period, it comes pretty close — we ramped up from a much smaller share in April, to where we are capturing more than 90% of all US online sales for Q4 2017 and beyond.
No other data set in our industry comes close to matching ours for full-market coverage, let alone timeliness. So, although we’ll barely have time to scratch the surface here, let’s dig in.
Online Sales By Format (All Book Categories Combined)
The above two pie charts show 2017 US online book sales by format: on the left, total units purchased, and on the right, total consumer dollars spent.
(It’s worth noting that even print sales have, by now, moved mostly online: in 2017, we show a full 45.5% of Bookscan’s reported 687 million total US print book sales coming from Amazon alone. By our measurement, Amazon’s share of the print market has been steadily and continuously climbing, from “only” 41.7% in 2016 and 37.7% in 2015, while sales at bookstores and other brick and mortar outlets shrink — a fact obscured by Bookscan’s lumping of Amazon online sales and brick and mortar bookstore sales together in a single combined category called “Club & Retail.” So the red online “print” share shown here represents roughly half of all US print sales, period. ).
Unsurprisingly, when we look at the above pie charts, most online book purchases in 2017 were ebooks (55%), while audiobooks made up a small but fast-growing share of units (6%), and print books accounted for the remaining 39% of units. In dollar terms, ebooks–with their generally lower purchase prices–made up a far smaller share of total online dollar spending, while 63% of online book dollar spending was for print.
But that doesn’t mean adult fiction dollars split that way. Nor even trade adult nonfiction dollars.
Why? Because it turns out a huge chunk of those print dollars are actually going to textbooks and other academic/professional print titles (strangely, the DSM-5 Psychiatric Manual of Mental Disorders was a particularly high 2017 seller). Textbooks, which are generally priced in the $60-$200 range, skew the dollar total significantly toward print. As do children’s books (including Board Books), another huge category of book sales where almost all purchases are in print.
When we leave out textbooks and children’s titles, and look only at adult fiction & trade nonfiction, the picture changes somewhat…
Online Sales By Format (Adult Fiction & Nonfiction)
70% of online purchases of adult fiction & nonfiction are ebooks & audiobooks, and online consumer dollars skew mostly digital, too. In fact, most of the remaining online print share here is nonfiction; further narrowing the scope to just adult fiction, we see that online sales are even more digitally dominated, as shown below.
Online Sales By Format (Adult Fiction)
In short, the answer to “which format(s) now make up the majority of sales” depends entirely on the genre. Blending together textbooks and “trade” titles, children’s books and adult books, and fiction with nonfiction hides obscures which formats particular readers are buying most.
Even within the broader category of Adult fiction, we see wide variation. Romance readers are overwhelmingly buying digital now: 90% of all Romance purchases are ebooks. And we can see that Science Fiction & Fantasy, with roughly 75% of sales now ebooks & audio, is not that far behind. On the other hand, readers of Poetry are still buying 82% of those Poetry books as print, and 85% of Drama & Plays are bought in print, even online.
So clearly, depending on what you write, YMMV.
Online Sales By Month
Overall US ebook dollars (green) and audiobook dollars (yellow) were pretty flat from month to month: December doesn’t really look all that different than May. Digital book-buyers seem on the whole to be very steady consumers, showing little seasonality in their overall purchasing behavior.
Print sales (shown in red), on the other hand, exhibit wild seasonal swings — even online — with total print sales more than doubling during back-to-school months (August/September & January), mainly due to the sales of those textbooks we mentioned earlier. There’s also a secondary peak in December, around the time of trade publishers’ big holiday releases, but it’s significantly smaller in size — unlike at brick-and-mortar bookstores, for whom a 2x December sales spike typically means make-or-break for the year.)
So how much does release timing matter for your next title? Less and less, nowadays. It seems to matter mostly for print, and even then, only for bookstore sales. For online and digital sales, it appears the “pool is open” year round.
US Online Book Sales by Publisher Type
From 2014 – 2016, Author Earnings reports only broke sales down into five broad publisher groupings. The 5 largest “Big Five” trade publishers were broken out into a category, as were Amazon’s own publishing imprints. We had a category for self-published indie authors whom we had individually verified, but we threw the rest of the unverified “single author” publishers into a different category. And finally, we had a catch-all category called “Small/Medium Publisher” where we basically stuck all other traditional publishers of any size — a gross simplification that let us put off the administrative pain of manually sorting through hundreds of thousands of variations of publishing imprint names and scattershot publisher metadata labels.
In 2017, we finally bit the bullet, classifying tens of thousands of top selling publishing imprints and metadata labels, and grouping them all under their appropriate parent entities — it was a ton of work, but worth it.
Now, instead of 5 publisher types, we have 20 — giving us laser-keen visibility into how traditional publishers of various sizes and stripes are faring, too.
2017 Ebook Sales by Publisher Type
With apologies in advance to color-challenged readers, here are pie charts showing US ebook sales for the last 3 quarters of 2017, in unit sales and in total consumer dollars, broken down by publisher type. (In assigning the new colors, we tried to stay as consistent as possible with the historic AE report palette. Purples and pinks/reds still capture the market shares of traditional publishers of various sizes, blue wedges depict market shares for different types of self-publisher, and green shows Amazon imprints.)
Circling clockwise from the top:
- Purple represents the Big Five’s share of US sales.
- The next four slices, magenta through light pink, show in order of descending size the shares held by Large, Medium, and Small trade publishers, and lastly the smallest Micropresses.
- Dark yellow-orange shows Large Academic Publishers, while the next lighter yellow wedge (here an invisible sliver) shows other Academic publishers, and the even paler yellow sliver that follows is University Presses.
- Next comes Amazon Publishing Imprints in green: Montlake, Thomas & Mercer, 47North, etc.
- Followed by dark teal “Single Author Mega Imprints” (which is J.K. Rowling’s Pottermore getting its own category, basically).
- Then come 3 types of blue indie self-publisher: pale aqua for small indie collectives who share publishing duties via a shared imprint, darker blue for individual self-publishers with their own LLC or DBA imprint name, and finally a slightly lighter blue for those individual self-publishers who use no separate imprint name at all.
- Lastly, we have 3 types of Uncategorized imprints: pale gray for Single-Author imprints, medium gray for Few-Author imprints, and dark gray for Many-Author imprints. Collectively, these are the 200,000 lowest-selling imprints and label names left after we were done categorizing more than 90% of 2017’s online sales, starting from the top-selling imprints on down. None of the imprints that were left uncategorized — even the Many-Author ones — had 2017 sales adding up to more than $30,000.
And in tabular form, here’s the 2017 US ebook market broken down by publisher type, ordered from largest dollar share down to smallest:
Remember that spike in “Small/Medium Publisher” ebook market share we reported, back in October 2016?
At the time, AE’s categorization of traditional publishers was way too broad: just one category for the Big Five, and one for everyone else. In our October 2016 report, when the non-Big Five traditional share of ebook dollars suddenly ramped up, we knew we needed to dig deeper. Now that we are able to differentiate the sales of 20 different types of publisher, the answer is crystal clear. The single category responsible for that late 2016 spike was Large Academic Publishers.
eTextbooks, in other words.
In Q3 2016, several of the largest academic publishers, frustrated with the growing competition from online sales of used print textbooks from previous years, began moving more aggressively into ebook sales. Their eTextbooks, while cheaper than new print textbooks, are on average 5x as expensive as trade fiction/non-fiction ebooks — leading rapid dollar market share capture. For 2017, ebooks from Large Academic Publishers–while only 1% of ebook units–captured a full 5.5% of ebook dollar spending.
A mystery back then, a one-click answer now…
So was self-publishing losing ground or gaining market share in 2017?
Throughout 2017, a frequent meme circulating in indie author loops was that self-publishing was hitting headwinds, and that self-published sales had slowed dramatically for “everyone.” Even the biggest indie stars of yesteryear were no longer pulling down what they used to, so times must be even tougher for everyone else.
A quick glance at the pie charts above reveal a different story. The indie share of the entire US ebook market, comprising the various blue wedges in the pies above, now looks like what the indie share of Amazon alone used to be, in our quarterly snapshots from previous years. In other words, far from losing ground, the overall indie market share has grown.
By how much? To know for sure, we’d need to be able to do apples-to-apples same-month comparisons, year over year. Which requires having more than a year’s worth of continuous market-wide data. And since we only started collecting continuous data since April, we won’t quite reach that point for another 3 months. (It doesn’t make sense to compare our new, continuously aggregated market-wide data against one of our old single-day, single-retailer AE snapshots; that would be an apples-vs-oranges comparison, and relatively meaningless.)
In the meantime, we can look at how indie ebook sales have trended relative to that of traditional trade publishers during the 9 months we’ve been tracking the whole market, using each group’s sales for first few months as a baseline. The graph below shows that.
Month by month, we can see the percentage increase/decrease in indie sales relative to that of all trade publishers combined. The curve is red where indies grew slower (or shrank faster) than trade publishers, and green where indies grew faster (or shrank slower).
It tells us that, in aggregate, trade publishers of all sizes, combined, grew their dollar sales 1.1% over the 9 month period. Indies grew theirs 2.1% during the same period. For the last 9 months of 2017, then, it appears self-publishers in the aggregate were still gaining market share, albeit slowly.
So why have we been hearing so many prominent indie pioneers telling newer authors and aspirants that “things are tough all over” now? Why are so many of them saying “indie publishing isn’t what it used to be”?
When we dug deeper, the data led us to a pretty simple answer, which we’ll circle back to at the end of the report.
In the meantime, let’s look at audio.
2017 Audiobook Sales by Publisher Type
The audio breakdown is a little more complicated. Amazon-owned publishing imprints (in this case, Audible Studios and Brilliance Audio) are the publisher of record for a fifth of all US audio sales. But a significant minority of these are sales of titles where audio rights have been sub-licensed from self-published authors, the Big Five, or other traditional publishers.
Amazingly, JK Rowling alone is still capturing 2.4% of all US Audio dollars with her Harry Potter titles!
Pottermore sales make up the “Single Author Mega-Imprint” category in the table below:
And finally, let’s see how online print sales break down.
2017 Online Print Sales by Publisher Type
Here, in the dark yellow and lighter yellow wedges, we can see the massive share of print sales which are Textbooks and other Academic/Professional publications, accounting for more than 38% of online print dollars in Q2-Q4 2017. And again, below, in tabular form:
Next, let’s look at the 10 top selling genres for ebooks, for audiobooks, and for online print book sales. Note that what sells best in each format is quite different.
US Ebook Sales By Genre (Top 10)
US Audiobook Sales By Genre (Top 10)
US Online Print Sales By Genre (Top 10)
Next, a brief look at frontlist sales versus backlist sales.
US Ebook Sales : Frontlist vs Backlist
In a future post, we can split this out and show a separate frontlist-vs-backlist sales graph for each type of publisher; the differences between them are quite illuminating.
But for now, we’ll move on to pricing, and show how many books US customers are buying, and how many dollars they are spending, at different price points.
Amazon Ebook Units Sold By Price Point
Amazon Ebook Dollar Spend By Price Point
Needless to say, this represents the aggregate across all genres and publisher types; In a future post, it’s easy now to drill down into specific genres to see how sales vary by price point for particular types of book.
On a related note, let’s take a quick look at US ebook dollar sales by discount from list price.
Amazon Ebook Dollars By Discount From Digital List Price
And finally, because everyone loves bestseller lists, we’ll share the overall top 25 publishers and authors in each format, ranked by total dollar sales, for the entire nine-month period (Q2-Q4 2017). The color-coded dots alongside each entry indicate the publisher type (or, for authors, whichever publisher type generated the majority of their 2017 sales dollars).
Total units and actual dollar sales have been blurred out for obvious privacy reasons.
Top 25 Ebook Publishers by Dollar Sales, Q2-Q4 2017
For more detailed analysis, we could drill down further into individual imprints for each publisher, and even specific labels within each imprint. But for a best seller list, that would be superfluous: the parent entity is most relevant here.
Remarkably, one of the top 25 ebook publishers for the US, ranked by total gross dollar sales for the entire nine month period, turned out to be the self-publishing imprint of a single indie author!
Top 25 Audiobook Publishers by Dollar Sales, Q2-Q4 2017
Top 25 Online Print Publishers by Dollar Sales, Q2-Q4 2017
And now, top selling online authors…
Top 25 Ebook Authors by Dollar Sales, Q2-Q4 2017
Note that we are ranking here by total customer dollars spent on the author’s books, rather than the portion that actually goes to the author. So it’s not surprising to see a lot of Big Five’s longest-tenured bestselling authors at the top of the list; in fact, it’s stunning that 2017’s #11 overall best selling ebook author in dollar terms was an indie, who doesn’t have to split those dollars with a publisher.
Further down the list, even in dollar terms, indies become much more prevalent.
- 7 of the top 100 selling ebook authors in the US were self-published indies
- 50 of the top 250 selling ebook authors in the US were self-published indies
- 121 of the top 500 selling ebook authors in the US were self-published indies
- 284 of the top 1,000 selling ebook authors in the US were self-published indies
Amazon Publishing also makes a strong ebook showing.
- 102 of the top 1,000 selling ebook authors in the US were published by Amazon imprints
So why are so many memes circulating about sales falling for “all” indies? We think we know why… and we’ll talk about that last.
Top 25 Audiobook Authors by Dollar Sales, Q2-Q4 2017
Note: entry #5, Roy Dotrice, is actually George R. R. Martin’s narrator, a glitch that will shortly be corrected in the dataset.
Top 25 Online Print Authors by Dollar Sales, Q2-Q4 2017
And finally, circling back to the earlier anecdotal reports about “all” indies struggling, we took a look at the 50 top-selling indie authors for 2017, ranked by total US dollar sales, and noticed something interesting…
A Changing of the Guard Among Indie Best Sellers
ETA: We had initially shared a ranked Top 50 Indie Ebook Sellers list here (with units and dollars blurred out, of course). But then some of the authors on it started emailing us and asking for their names to be blurred out, too. As a courtesy to those authors, upon request we did so, but after the first few it became too much of a hassle. And besides, with a quarter of the list greyed out, it no longer effectively illustrated the point we were making, anyway. So we yanked the whole list, and will just simply state what we observed on it.
Despite the prevalent indie doom-and-gloom rumors, today’s top sellers are handily making as much or more than the top selling indies from prior years were.
But here’s the kicker:
- A lot of today’s top-selling indies are relatively new names. We didn’t recognize a lot of them.
- And a lot of yesteryear’s pioneering indie superstars no longer even make the Top 50.
In retrospect, upon further reflection, that shouldn’t really be surprising to anyone. But it helps explain why, despite today’s rosy picture, a lot of the public indie-author-community chatter sounds so unrelievedly grim.
Remember that the early indie pioneers, who rode the first wave of self-publishing when it was shiny and new, were super excited about the industry changes that enabled their newfound success. Many of them consequently spent time and energy evangelizing for self-publishing, accumulating along the way large followings among their fellow authors and aspirants, and to this day, many other authors and newbies still look to those early pioneer gurus for ultimate insight and information about the industry.
So perhaps it was inevitable that, now that we’re 7 or 8 years into the era of viable self-publishing, many of these early pioneers are hitting their sophmore slumps. And telling their large author followings that indie publishing is no longer what it used to be, and that “nobody” is making big money anymore.
The data proves them wrong.
What it shows instead is a changing of the author guard.
But the newest superstars of Indie, Inc., who have replaced the indie pioneers in the top rankings, are in general a quieter bunch than their predecessors were. They spend far less time evangelizing self-publishing, or giving advice to large groups of authors. And why would they? Indie publishing has gone mainstream.
Which is why it’s nice that we finally have comprehensive data covering the nontraditional side of the industry, too, at long last. 🙂