E-book sales catching up to mass market paperbacks

E-book sales catching up to mass market paperbacks

The Association of American Publishers just released some very interesting figures for March sales.

Press Release

There’s a lot of good news in here: total book sales were up 16.6 percent for the month, and eight percent for the year.

Yes, that’s right: people are buying more books.  I think that’s a natural consequence of the expanding e-book market.  Frequent readers are probably buying more books in e-book form than they did in paperbook form.

But adult hardback sales were also up: 15.1 percent for the month of March, 3.7% for the year. 

Could e-books be contributing to making reading cool again?

Even audiobooks showed a considerable increase.

But here’s the interesting one to me: mass market paperbacks were down (18.1 percent for March, 6.6 percent for the year to date), and e-books were massively up (184.1 percent for March, 251.9 percent year to date).

That’s where the real battle may be, and people may have largely missed that.

A lot of the talk has been about e-books versus hardbacks.  That’s the whole $9.99 controversy. 

However, if the hardback comes out, and then somebody buys the e-book (partially because it is cheaper), they aren’t going to buy it again when it comes out in paperback.

Even though they might have waited for paperbacks in the past.

People who buy hardbacks have always been willing to pay more to get it right away.  People who buy paperbacks have been willing to wait to get it cheaper.

E-b0oks are not generally being “windowed” (delayed significantly) after the hardback release now.  People may be paying more for the e-book than they would have for the paperback, but less than they would have for the hardback.

Some people certainly wait for the e-book price that occurs when the paperback is released, but my intuition is that is the minority.

Hardback sales are increasing, e-book sales are exploding…mass market paperbacks are decreasing.

They are probably much closer than you might guess.

In March, mass market paperback sales were $53.6 million

In March, e-book sales were $28.5 million.

That’s right…e-book sales were 53% of the mass market paperback sales.

Let’s use the annual rates of increase and decrease. 

Adult mass market paperbacks down 6.6%, e-books up 251.9%. 

We’ll divide those by 12 to get a monthly increase.

That means that roughly in December of 2010, e-books should surpass adult mass market paperback sales in the US.

I would actually guess it would be sooner than that. 

The iPad is a somewhat complicating factor…it became available after March, so it isn’t reflected in these sales.  I think that will accelerate e-book sales considerably: not so much because of the iBooks store, but because of the Kindle store on the iPad with the free app.

The other factor is the Agency Model, which took effect in April, and so is also not reflected in these figures.   Arguably, this new way of selling books, in which the publishers set the consumer prices and the former retailers just process the sales, might slow down the growth of the e-book market.  Why?  Because the prices have been somewhat higher.  In addition, there’s been some bad press out there…I’ve seen a lot of people saying they are getting some books at the library instead of buying them (in either e-book form or p-book form), since they prefer the e-books but don’t like what has been happening.

E-books published by Penguin after March 31st have also not been in the Kindle store due to a dispute between Amazon and the publisher.  That will presumably result in somewhat lower e-book sales, since Amazon is a big chunk of that market, and Penguin is one of the six biggest publishers in the US trade market.


Despite all that, I think e-books sales will continue to grow incredibly for at least a couple of years.  As more and more people switch to EBRs (E-Book Readers), and those people buy more and more books (which seems to be the trend), the number will continue to rise.

Before the Kindle, I was seeing estimates that e-books might be half a percent of publishing.

This latest report makes them six percent (28.5 million to 458.2 million).  That’s an 1100 percent increase (in the percentage of publishing)…in three years.

I also want to point out one other specific statistic: audiobook sales are up.  This is despite the presence of text-to-speech in the marketplace.  Yes, that access has been blocked by four out of the six Big Six publishers, but it’s still out there.  I think audiobooks had been declining in the market at one point: I do think this increase may be partially attributed to text-to-speech.  I’ve postulated that text-to-speech may accustom people to listening to books.

That’s just a hypothesis, though.

It’s also important to note as we look at this that independently published books are presumably not included in these figures.  That would increase the e-book sales…how much would be hard to say, but I do think those sales matter.

Publishing is clearly changing…

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog.

3 Responses to “E-book sales catching up to mass market paperbacks”

  1. lp Says:

    You may well be right. I have not seen any general statistics but my personal experience (maybe not representative) is that MMPs (as opposed to trade paperbacks) simply are not being published or stocked as often as in years past. If there are fewer MMP’s available, there will be fewer sold.

  2. Mel Says:

    Here’s an idea, though I have no idea how you’d test it.

    There’s no resale market for electronic books. You can’t just go to the local used book store and pick up a copy, and with DRM you can’t get it from a friend (except with the nook).
    I’d actually expect the number of sales for books to go up due to this.
    Say the average physical book is read by two different people. That book would only be bought from the publishers once. With ebooks though, the publisher would see two sales.

    I know you had a poll a few months back regarding whether people were buying books rather than borrowing them from friends, but I think it left out who was buying ebooks new versus buying a physical copy secondhand.

    • bufocalvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Mel!

      Well, that’s possible…but we’ve actually been buying fewer books in our family in some cases, because we can read the same file at the same time on multiple Kindles. Sometimes in the past, we would actually buy multiple copies of a new book, so we could read them at the same time. There may be more sharing now than in the paper world.

      It’s actually quite a complex question. If the average p-book is read by two people, does that really translate into two sales in e-books? If the second person who read the p-book couldn’t have gotten it from the person who bought it, would she or he actually have bought it? Perhaps that person would have read something else, or gotten it from the library.

      The nook lending thing is quite limited, by the way but friends on the same Kindle or B&N account can share more freely.

      You are right that I didn’t address that question. I would guess that e-book readers are buying more books…that’s certainly been what I’ve heard. I think that may be more due to reading them more quickly (especially with text-to-speech).

      It’s certainly worth considering…thanks!

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