October 2015 – Apple, B&N, Kobo, and Google: a look at the rest of the ebook market
- Amazon makes up a higher percentage of the total US ebook market than the oft-cited 65% figure: when indie books without ISBNs are included in the statistics, Amazon accounts for 74% of all US ebook purchases and 71% of all US consumer dollars spent on ebooks.
- Outside of Amazon.com, 4 other major online retailers comprise nearly the entirety of the remaing 26% of the US ebook market: the Apple iBookstore, the Barnes & Noble Nook store, the Kobo US bookstore, and GooglePlay Books.
- At those 4 other stores, self-published indie ebooks make up 22% of all ebooks purchases and take in 32% of all author income generated by ebook sales.
- Between 14% and 25% of all ebooks sold at Apple, Nook, and Kobo store lack Bowker-issued International Standard Book Numbers (ISBNs).
- In total, more than 33% of all ebooks sold in the US each year have no ISBN.
- Across the entire US ebook market, ebooks without ISBNs now command a greater share of consumer ebook purchases, reading time, and author earnings than all of the AAP’s 1,200 publishers put together, including the Big Five.
- The true US ebook market, which includes non-ISBN sales, is at least 50% larger than ISBN-limited market statistics from Nielsen and Bowker are estimating.
According to most industry accounts, 65% of all US ebook sales happen through Amazon’s Kindle store. Or, more accurately, 65% of traditionally-published ebook sales do — because as we’ve seen, the media reporting on the industry almost always confuses the sales of only 1,200 traditional AAP publishers with those of the entire US ebook market. And as we’ve also seen, those 1,200 AAP publishers now represent less than half of the broader US ebook market — a market which, despite all the misleading media coverage of the AAP’s collapsing ebook sales, is still growing while the AAP’s minority share of it falls.
Over the past 7 quarters, we’ve charted the rise of non-traditionally published ebooks on Amazon. We’ve watched the share of the US consumer ebook market held by independent authors and Amazon-imprint authors grow quarter after quarter, while the share of the market held by traditionally published ebooks shrank. Today, indie authors and Amazon-imprint authors sell more ebooks daily than all traditional publishers put together, a remarkable fact that most industry observers — ourselves included — still find hard to believe. And it’s also a reality that the publishing industry statistics from Nielsen, Bowker, and the like — which all rely on counting ISBNs — are completely blind to… for the simple reason that 37% of all ebooks sold on Amazon.com each day do not use ISBNs.
Still, Amazon is not the entirety of the US ebook market.
We know that 35% of traditionally published ebook sales occur outside Amazon: at competing retailers like the Apple iBooks store, the Barnes & Noble Nook store, the Kobo Book store, and Google Play.
But what about indie ebook sales?
Some traditional industry spokespersons have speculated that more than 85% of indie ebook sales are wholly dependent upon Amazon. They presume that indies sell very poorly outside the Kindle store and make up an insignificant percentage of ebook sales elsewhere.
Among indie authors themselves, there is little consensus. Anecdotes about sales at other retailers run the gamut. Some indies are now going all-in with Kindle Unlimited, choosing to make their books Amazon-exclusive because the sales they saw at other ebook stores were so anemic in comparison. Many of these authors report seeing a significant increase in their earnings under KU, not only in the form of KU payments for page reads, but also in additional direct sales of their books as a result of the side benefit of enhanced best-seller-list visibility which the lift from KU borrows gives them. These authors say the combination of the two more than offsets whatever lost sales they have given up in other stores. At the same time, other indie authors are doing the exact opposite, by opting out of Kindle Unlimited exclusivity to “go wide.” They report doing very well as a result, with some high-earning indies making more revenue on non-Amazon channels than on Amazon itself. Many authors who have gone wide report seeing the relative share of their earnings coming from non-Amazon channels increase month after month.
To go exclusive or to go wide? For indies, it’s not an either-or thing. Any indie author can choose to make some of their books into Kindle Unlimited exclusives while leaving other books in wide distribution, selling them across all other retailers. And the decision whether to put a particular book into KU or go wide with it can be revisited every three months, separately, for each book an indie author has published. Despite that flexibility — or perhaps even because of it — it’s still a decision that many authors agonize over. When it comes to indie ebook sales outside Amazon, however, there is little hard data available to inform our choices.
Is the robust market for indie ebooks, as some claim, largely an Amazon-only phenomenon?
Or does a healthy market for independent authors also exist at other US retailers, too?
We decided to find out.
Apple iBooks, B&N Nook, Kobo, and Google: a look at the rest of the ebook market
In the US, more than 95% of all consumer ebook purchases — and probably closer to 99% of them — go through just five major ebook retailers. Among those five, Amazon is the proverbial 800 pound gorilla. Amazon accounts for almost two thirds of the traditionally-published total… and significantly more of the true overall ebook total, making up 74% of US ebook unit sales and 71% of US gross consumer dollars spent on ebooks (once you include all no-ISBN indie sales and those of Amazon’s publishing imprints.)
Next up in size after Amazon is Apple’s iBooks store, accounting for roughly 10-12% of US ebook sales — or a third of what’s left. After iBooks comes Barnes & Noble’s Nook store, which despite its steepening downward slide over the past two years, still remains the #3 ebook retailer with about 7-8% of all US ebook sales. Fourth up is Kobo, with about half of Nook’s sales — or maybe 3-4% of the total US market. And finally Google, with around a third of Kobo’s sales, making up 1-2% of today’s ebook market — a surprisingly meager showing for the internet giant.
Thus we have the big picture:
Overall Market Share of US Ebook Unit Sales Held by Each Retailer
Overall Market Share of US Gross Consumer $ Ebook Purchases Held by Each Retailer
But how can we know the relative size of each retailer’s ebook sales, even to such an approximate degree?
The answer is simple: precisely the same way we learned to predict daily Amazon sales from relative ebook rankings. If methodology and math make your eyes cross, don’t worry — you’re not alone; feel free to skip ahead to our analysis of the Apple iBookstore. But if you geek out on this stuff the way we do, here’s how we put the pieces of the puzzle together.
Indie authors routinely share detailed sales data with each other. This includes data on sales in other stores, as well as sales on Amazon. The number of daily sales required to reach an overall Top 100 sales rank, a Top 10 rank, or even a Top 5 rank in each of these stores is fairly common knowledge among high-selling indies whose books frequently occupy those ranks. For instance, while it takes at least 1,000 Amazon sales in a day to reach an overall Top 100 ranking from a standing start, you need less than 150 sales to achieve the same Top-100 rank in the Apple iBooks store. And nowadays, 100 sales will easily put you in the Top 100 on Nook, while 50 will do it on Kobo. Similar ratios hold all the way up to the Top 5 in each store: nearly 5,000 sales are needed in a day to reach the Top 5 on Amazon, whereas you can reach the iBooks Top 5 with maybe 650 sales, and 500 sales will easily get you there on Nook. It’s possible to hit the Top 5 on Kobo with 250 sales in a day, and it takes far less that that on Google.
In any online store that sells millions of different book titles, the distribution of those sales — from the very highest sellers on down through the long tail of lower-selling and non-selling books — will have the exact same shape: a very well known and predictable mathematical distribution. Thus, the ratio between the number of sales needed to achieve a given sales rank at Amazon versus achieve the same rank in the iBookstore, or to hit that rank at Kobo versus at the Nook store, gives us the ratio between the total daily sales volumes in each of those stores.
Armed with that knowledge, lets now visit each major US retailer in turn, and discover how ebook sales within each store break down between different types of publishers. Along the way, we will find that each store also has something else unique and interesting to show us.
The Apple iBookstore (~11% of all US ebook sales)
Like the Amazon store, Apple has many category bestseller lists and sub-lists from which our AuthorEarnings software spider was able to pull thousands of books and their sales-ranking data. Unlike the Amazon store, however, only the Top 200 books reveal their absolute ranking among all other books in the iBookstore. From the other lists, we were able to obtain a rich matrix of relative ranking data for that genre or subgenre, but no absolute rankings. This required a slight change in our methodology. Fortunately, many of those category best-seller lists included several books that were also in the overall Top 200. This gave us a mathematical “master key” for each category list, from which we could calculate a rank scaling factor to apply to the rest of the books on that list. Thus we could project with reasonable accuracy the absolute sales rankings for 5,300 more of the iBookstore’s top-selling books (out of the 33,000 total titles that our spider had collected from Apple’s lists). Those top-selling 5,500 books comprised roughly half of all Apple ebook sales that day, giving us a very representative cross-section of sales in the iBookstore.
Breaking the data down by publishing segment, here’s what we found:
11% of all best-seller listed ebooks and 20% of all ebook purchases in the Apple iBookstore are verifiably books by indie self-published authors. Another 3% are books by lower-selling single-author publishers — most likely also indies, but we didn’t check them one by one, so we left them uncategorized. The Big Five traditional publishers — Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Simon & Schuster, and Hachette — make up 58% of unit sales, while small and medium publishers make up the remaining 19%.
With 20% of Apple’s unit ebook sales now going to indie authors, that puts the iBookstore about on par with what the Amazon Kindle and Barnes & Noble Nook stores used to look like, back in late 2012 or early 2013. But this is our very first look at the iBookstore, so it remains to be seen whether the indie share of Apple’s ebook sales is currently growing, stable, or shrinking. Only time will tell.
In gross consumer dollar terms, indies currently make up only 9-11% of Apple’s ebook dollar sales, while the Big Five, with their higher agency ebook prices, take in nearly 75% of the gross consumer dollars spent in the iBookstore. But our focus is as always author earnings, rather than how much traditional-publishing middlemen are taking out of the pie. So the bottom chart — which looks at only the author’s share of each book’s earnings — is a lot more interesting to us, because of what it reveals:
At least 28% of the total income received by authors from iBookstore sales is going to indie authors.
Indies are taking a big bite out of the apple, when it comes to author earnings. Perhaps some of that 28% results from Apple’s more generous across-the-board 70% revenue share, which applies at any price point rather than only for books the $2.99-$9.99 price range… or it might be that Apple offers special featuring to indies with more frequency. But whatever the reason, while that 28% pales in comparison to the 43% of all author earnings that indies command on Amazon, it’s still more than we expected to see.
With indies capturing well over a quarter of the author earnings generated by the iBookstore, it’s pretty safe to say that that a healthy market for indie books exists at Apple. But quite a few indies use third party distributors to get their books into the iBookstore, while others choose to deal with Apple direct. So let’s take a look at how indie books distributed via the different paths are performing relative to one another.
Distributing to Apple via Smashwords, via Draft2Digital, or author direct
More than half of the indie titles we found on Apple — 57% of them — were distributed via Smashwords. Draft2Digital was the distributor for 15%, while the remaining 28% were published to the iBookstore directly by indie authors themselves.
The allocation of sales and income among those indie titles, however, breaks down quite differently.
Below we see the average number of sales per day the best-seller-listed indie iBooks distributed each way are achieving. By far, the ebooks performing the best are the ones published directly by indie authors themselves — selling on average 3.5 times as many copies as those published through Draft2Digital, and 6 times as many copies as those published through Smashwords.
And in author earnings terms, we see the same disparity:
It’s important to keep in mind that correlation doesn’t equal causation. There might be many possible explanations for why books published directly by their authors are performing so much better in the iBookstore than those distributed by either Draft2Digital or Smashwords — perhaps the choice of distribution method is only tangentially linked with these authors’ relatively greater success. Maybe the very highest-selling indies are also the ones most likely to want to avoid paying a middleman distributor an extra 14% of their net author earnings (the portion shown in red above). Or it could be that the authors going direct are also the likeliest to engage directly in their relationship with the iBookstore, and to collaborate with Apple in seeking mutual promotional opportunities. From the data alone, it’s hard to determine the underlying cause of this disparity in outcomes between the different distribution paths. But it is an interesting incidental finding nonetheless.
The Barnes & Noble Nook Store (~7% of all US ebook sales)
Of the 5 major ebook retailers, the Barnes & Noble store is the easiest one to extract sales ranking data from. By paging past the visible end of B&N’s overall Top 100 bestseller list, one can find the overall sales ranking for every single ebook available from Barnes & Noble — from their #1 overall best seller down to their lowest-selling ebook, which is ranked #3,467,367. From a technological standpoint, however, the Nook store is also quite fragile and error-prone, often failing to return search results or book buy-pages. To work around the B&N store’s fragility, we had to modify our software spider so that it would retry downloading each page multiple times if the first attempt or two failed.
But the B&N store’s technical glitches aside, we were able to extract a complete set of data encompassing the 16,200 best-selling books in the Nook store — which represents roughly 45% of all Nook ebook sales that day.
Here’s how those sales break down:
More than 27% of the Top 16,200 best selling paid titles in the Nook store were verifiably self-published by indie authors, and those titles comprise 24% — or roughly a quarter — of all Nook daily unit sales. In previous reports on the Nook store, we had examined sales of genre fiction only, rather than all ebook sales, so we can’t make a direct year-over-year comparison with our previous reports. But this 27% number appears to be relatively unchanged since 2013, back when a Barnes & Noble press release first mentioned that 25% of their daily ebook sales were of books by indie authors. It’s clear that despite the Nook stores current ongoing downward slide in both market share and total revenues, indies still continue to make up a significant share of all sales there.
An even bigger share of the total author income generated in the Nook store — 37% of all Nook author earnings — is going to self-published indie authors. Not quite the 43% we measured on Amazon last month, but close.
Still, to describe the Nook ebook market as a “healthy” one for indies would be to ignore the reality of Nook’s deepening downward spiral. But at least indie authors are continuing to receive a fair chunk of Nook’s shrinking revenues on its way down. So we hope Barnes & Noble can manage to turn the Nook store around before it hits bottom or otherwise craters.
The Kobo Book Store (~4% of all US ebook sales)
The Kobo store, much like the iBooks store, does not display an overall sales rank for each book on its product page — only the very Top 50 best sellers have a directly visible absolute sales rank. Luckily, just like in the iBookstore, most Top 50 books also appear in multiple category best-seller lists, so we had for each list our “master key” that let us calculate approximate absolute sales rankings for the books below them, and from those projected rankings, we compute estimated daily sales. We were able to do this for 1,850 of the 6,100 books we captured, a cross-sectional sample that includes roughly a third of Kobo’s ebook sales that day.
Here’s how sales in the Kobo store break down among publisher types:
Somewhere between 22% and 25% of all ebooks purchased in the Kobo store are indie self-published, a number roughly in line with what we found at Apple (20-23%) and at Barnes & Noble (24%). In other words…
At each of the remaining three largest ebook retailers outside of Amazon, between a fifth and a quarter of all ebooks purchased each day are self-published indie books.
The breakdown of gross consumer sales and author-earnings in the Kobo store looks like this:
The data reveals that indie authors are taking home more than a third of the total author earnings generated in the Kobo store. The 34% share of Kobo author income that is going to indies lies between the 28% on Apple and the 37% on Nook. Taken together, we see that:
Nearly a third of all author earnings each day from ebook sales at the three largest ebook retailers outside of Amazon is going to indie authors.
But the Kobo store also has something else interesting to tell us.
On the product page for a Kobo book, one can find an entry for that book’s “ISBN.” In most cases, what appears there is a true Bowker-purchased, industry-trackable International Standard Book Number (a thirteen digit number beginning with 978 or 979). But for many indie books, we see instead a Kobo-assigned id (thirteen digits starting with 123). These substitute identifiers get assigned by Kobo whenever the original book lacks a true, Bowker-purchased ISBN. Therefore, we can determine with a high degree of accuracy what percentage of Kobo’s daily sales are books without ISBNs… and thus what percentage of daily ebook sales are completely invisible and uncounted in the oft-cited publishing industry statistics from Nielsen and Bowker. (Remember that those two entities are entirely reliant upon on ISBNs to accurately measure the industry.)
We’ve already seen that 37% of the ebooks purchased each day in the Amazon store lack ISBNs. On Kobo, the ratio is slightly less extreme, but still eye-opening.
18% of Kobo’s best-seller listed titles and 14% of all daily ebook purchases in the Kobo store are indie ebooks without ISBNs.
14% of all author earnings generated in the Kobo store are also from indie books without ISBNs.
What makes these percentages all the more remarkable is that they do not include the sales of indies whose books are distributed to Kobo by Smashwords or Draft2Digital, both of whom assign their own ISBNs to indies who lack them. If a significant percentage of indie authors are using either of those third-party distributors to sell on Kobo, rather than going direct, then ebooks which originally lacked ISBNs might well comprise a significantly larger percentage — most likely around 20-25% of Kobo’s total daily ebook purchases and author earnings, if the breakdown of Smashwords/D2D vs indie-direct is somewhat similar to what we measured at Apple.
At the end of our report, we’ll come back to those no-ISBN ebooks. But for now let’s move on to the last of the five major ebook stores… GooglePlay.
The Google Play Book Store (~2% of all US ebook sales)
The GooglePlay store presented no technical challenges when it came to extracting data on ebook bestsellers. It was when we attempted to interpret that data, using the exact same techniques that we employed to analyze ebook sales in the iBookstore and Kobo bookstore, that we noticed a very significant anomaly. Superficially, Google’s Overall Top-100 best seller list and its various category-specific bestseller lists appear to be set up very similarly to Kobo’s or the iBookstore’s. But when we attempted to correlate the sales rankings of books appearing in Google’s overall Top 100 with their corresponding rankings on Google’s category best seller lists, we found complete mathematical inconsistency. Some books were actually better-ranked in Google’s overall Top-100 than they were on the category best-seller lists — a mathematical impossibility, if both purport to measure each book’s relative sales. Other books appeared in a different order in the category best-seller lists than they did in the overall Top 100 — another mathematical impossibility.
When we ignored Google’s overall Top 100 list, however, and limited ourselves to comparing rankings across all Google’s other category best seller lists, we found them to be entirely mathematically consistent with one another. If two books appeared in a certain order in the rankings on one category best-seller list, they appeared in the same order on any other list that included both. And no book held a worse rank in a sub-category than it did in the parent category above. Other than, that is, those listed in Google’s overall Top-100.
In short, we have no idea what Google’s “Top Selling in Books” list is actually supposed to be measuring. Judging by the mix of titles on it, it might very well simply be a merchandising category where publishers can purchase some of their books co-op placement, or similar. Only Google could tell us. But one thing is for certain: Google’s “Top Selling in Books” list bears very little mathematical relationship to the actual daily sales of the books that appear on it.
Thus deprived of a mathematically-accurate Top-100 “master key” that we could use to map relative category-specific rankings into equivalent absolute rankings, our ability to accurately estimate title sales in the GooglePlay store is somewhat limited. But our hands aren’t completely tied. We can still infer a great deal from the mathematically-consistent relative rankings available on hundreds of category best-seller lists, and the distribution of books by the different types of publishers on each of those lists.
But this posed its own challenges. Because not all best-seller lists are equal. The rankings on some bestseller lists such as “Romance” or “Thrillers” correspond to relatively high volumes of ebook sales. Others, particularly Google’s dozens of highly granular subcategory lists for legal reference books, medical textbooks, and other nonfiction, like “Medical > Urology” or “Law > Indigenous Peoples” or “Sports > Cricket”, likely represent far lower sales volumes each. Combining them in a way that treated them all equally would produce a highly skewed and inaccurate result. But in the absence of hard sales data, any attempt to artificially weigh one category best-seller list differently from other would introduce bias, based on our preconceived notions about which genre categories make up the bulk of the sales.
After agonizing over the best mathematical approach, in the end we kept it very simple. We lumped all of the fiction categories together and all of the non-fiction categories together, and then charted the distribution of publishing types for fiction and nonfiction separately. Our breakdown for the GooglePlay store will still be somewhat inaccurate — for instance, the publisher mix in low-selling literary fiction categories will end up having a far greater influence on our results than their true sales would warrant, while popular genre fiction categories like Science Fiction will end up counting less than they should. But when you’re looking at a retailer that only makes up 2% of the US ebook market, getting reasonably close is probably good enough.
Perhaps somewhat unsurprisingly, the mix of publisher types for fiction selling in Google’s store looks quite a lot like the overall mix of publisher types in Apple’s iBookstore. While it is true that we are comparing Google’s fiction-only distribution to a combined total from the Apple store when we say so, it’s not an unreasonable comparison to make; we’ve seen that ebooks purchased in other stores do skew quite heavily toward fiction rather than nonfiction, and if Google is anything similar, the distribution of Google’s combined sales will end up looking a lot more like the left-side pie charts for fiction than the right-side ones for nonfiction.
Probably the biggest takeaway from our look at the Google store is that, to the best of our ability to measure, the proportion of indie ebook sales and earnings in the Google store are fairly similar to those at Apple, Kobo, et al. Even if Google were to become a far larger player in ebook sales than they are today, it would not significantly change our conclusions about the proportion of indie sales that make up the broader US ebook market.
And finally, let’s revisit the eight hundred pound gorilla: Amazon.
The Amazon Kindle Store (~73% of all US ebook sales)
Not much needs to be said here, because we covered Amazon’s ebook sales quite extensively in our September 2015 report. The only two significant differences between the breakdown of sales at Amazon and that at other retailers are the presence of Amazon-publishing imprints, which are missing from the mix at the other stores, and the somewhat better performance of indies on Amazon.
Indie self-published authors as a group already represent a very healthy share of sales at the other 4 major ebook retailers: accounting for a quarter of their unit sales and taking home a third of all author earnings generated in those stores. But at Amazon, indies are absolutely killing it. The unit sales and author earnings of indie authors in the Amazon store are overindexing significantly, even compared to the strong indie market presence we found in other stores.
When we put it all together, we can present a complete picture that reflects not just ebook sales on Amazon, but rather the ebook sales of the entire US ebook market.
The Entire US eBook Market, Broken Down by Publisher Type
Out of the Shadows and Into the Light: the No-ISBN Digital Publishing Industry
Although we couldn’t measure the non-ISBN percentage of ebook sales in the Apple iBooks and Barnes&Noble Nook stores directly, it’s safe to surmise that they lie along a similar spectrum as Kobo. Somewhat less than Amazon’s 37%, but still somewhere in the 20-25% range. So industry-wide, we can safely say that:
Indie ebooks without publisher-purchased ISBNs now make up at least 33% of all retail ebook purchases and author earnings across all US ebook stores.
In past reports, we have referred to these no-ISBN ebooks as the “shadow industry,” a catchy moniker originally coined by Joe Konrath which has gone on to become popular shorthand for the officially uncounted, ISBN-lacking sector of publishing.
But the term “shadow industry” is not really an accurate descriptor. Not anymore.
Ebooks without ISBNs now command a greater share of US consumer ebook purchases, reading time, and author earnings than all of the AAP’s 1,200 publishers put together, including the Big Five.
From a reader perspective and an author perspective, no-ISBN ebooks are by far the biggest sector of digital publication.
Today, no-ISBN indie ebooks pretty much ARE the digital publishing industry.
If you’re an indie author who sees little point in buying ISBNs for your digital editions, it looks like you’re in very good company. At this point, it’s unclear how the ISBN could possibly rescue itself as a meaningful measure of anything at all in the digital publishing world. Perhaps if all ISBNs were made universally free, and retroactively offered to all indie authors for their existing books… but even then, without any tangible benefit from using an ISBN, many authors still wouldn’t bother. The ISBNs irrelevance in the modern digital publishing world is a problem for which we don’t see an answer.
But if you’ve stuck with us so far, congratulations. You have our apologies for taking the scenic route — we had a lot of ground to cover in this all-stores report. But now that we’ve examined the shape of the ebook market at all major US retailers, we’ve come full circle back to our original question.
To Go Wide Or Not To Go Wide: That is the Question
Should you “go wide” and ensure that your books are available for sale across all US retailers, or should you focus your business on Amazon.com and take advantage of the enhanced earnings opportunities that come with Kindle Unlimited?
For indie authors, there is no easy, one-size-fits-all answer.
In our look at the other US ebook retailers, we found a significant share of indie sales in every single major store outside of Amazon. The myth that indie sales are virtually non-existent everywhere else is just that: a myth. But at the same time, 84% of all paid indie downloads happen on Amazon and 80% of all indie author earnings are generated on Amazon. That is today’s reality.
The great news is that indie authors aren’t forced to choose one or the other path exclusively. It’s not either-or for us. We can have our cake and eat it too, experimenting and iterating until we discover which approach works best for each of us, individually. And individually for each of our books. When payouts change, so can our approach. That’s the beauty of controlling your own intellectual property, and in today’s fast-changing publishing landscape, retaining control of your own IP is the best form of diversification — the greatest possible career insurance for an author — that there is.
So go forth and experiment. Try going wide and try going narrow. And make sure to have fun doing it.
Because there’s never been a time when authors had so many choices and so many opportunities.
There’s never been a time like now.