In The ‘Candlelight’ Of The Books Market: Paperbacks Are Selling eBooks

iStockphoto / Canoneer
iStockphoto / Canoneer

Paperbacks Sell eBooks: Surprised?

I owe my headline to The Bookseller’s Philip Jones who, in an email to me, has noted that publishing is an industry “looking at its market by candlelight.”

What he’s referring to is the fact that so much sales data is held secret by Amazon and other major retailers. Oddly, I still encounter people in the business who don’t yet realize that we don’t know how many books are being sold. It’s perfectly legal for corporations to keep this information private. It’s also perfectly unhelpful.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that publishing is without data. Many houses are working hard to capture and start parsing data. And one of the areas they can see numbers is in social media.

In A Big Year Ahead For Data, The Bookseller’s Felicity Wood and Tom Tivnan, for example, quote Rufus Weston at HarperCollinsUK:

Publishers are realizing what Amazon realized much earlier: that our own data is a business asset. As physical sales become less important, it is more difficult to use the TCM [total consumer market] to calibrate what a successful book or author is. We can now look at the social trajectory of a potential acquisition and use that to our advantage to set the advance. We’re seeing authors becoming more data-savvy, and I think we will see a further recognition that data is part of the business process. I can see us asking for a regular amount of tweets from a celebrity as part of their contract, for example.

John Lewis
John Lewis

And while publishers are learning to quantify, evaluate, and leverage authors’ social-media performance — especially as “physical sales become less important,” as Weston puts it — they might want to consider an observation made by The Bookseller’s John Lewis.

Lewis is the magazine’s numbers man, he tracks and monitors trends, and analyzes what they mean.

And even by the “candlelight” of an industry partly blinded to its own successes by the data-withholds of the big retailers, Lewis has detected a potential reversal of fortune for paperbacks:

It is the paperback’s release that makes the e-edition shine brightly once more and until the industry comes up with a different strategy for keeping authors’ new books on reader’s radars for longer than a few weeks, let’s hope talk of the paperback’s imminent demise continues to be pulp fiction.

Paperbacks “Giving E-Editions An Additional Boost”

In Pulp Fiction at The FutureBook, Lewis writes, “The paperback is more intricately linked to the success of digital then those foretelling of its ‘inevitable’ demise might be willing to recognize or concede.”

As most readers understand, the paperback has functioned for decades as a sort of second wind for a book. The traditional release pattern saw a book’s hardback edition issued first. Then months later, sometimes more than a year later, a paperback edition — cheaper and lighter-weight — would be released to prompt a second surge of sales and to widen the readership to those who didn’t pay the higher price for the hardback.

Eeny Meeny UK by ArlidgeIf anything, popular assumption has assumed that digital — those damned ebooks, baby — would kill the radio star, right? Chewing up paperbacks forever because who needs ’em when you’ve got it all in diodes?

Well, it turns out that ebooks might need those paperbacks.  Because the paperbacks are prompting ebook sales. Lewis:

In drawing attention back to the title, the paperback release is clearly giving e-editions an additional boost…If the paperback were to disappear, where is the extra promotional push leading to a sales spurt supposed to come from?

He provides several samples, drawn from recent key titles in the UK market, which he studies.

  • Eeny Meeny, for example, by M.J. Aldridge, was released by Penguin in May. It “has sold over 81,000 physical copies to date in paperback,”‘ writes Lewis, “but in its first month of release, digital accounted for nearly a quarter of its sales, or 9,912 copies. In less than eight weeks, it had sold nearly 17,000 in digital with its purchase price fluctuating, like most digital best sellers, but frequently hovering below £2 ($3.29).”
  • Robert Harris’ An Officer and a Spy (Cornerstone Digital in the UK / A.A. Knopf in the US) “sold 12,753 digital copies (nearly 20 percent of its total for the month) and entered at number 25 in our ebook ranking for May,” writes Lewis. “In June, however, Harris’s thriller climbed 17 places in our ranking to number eight with the digital share increasing to nearly one third of the total — nearly 20,000 copies.”
  • James Patterson’s Private LA (Cornerstone Digital in the UK / Little, Brown in the US) “saw 44 percent of its sales or 22,716 copies come from the digital edition in June to take fourth in the ranking”
  • Dan Brown’s Inferno (Transworld Digital in the UK / Anchor Books in the US) “went from having a 10-percent ‘e’ share in May to a 21-percent share of its total in June with 18,518 copies sold.”

Lewis cautions, “In none of these instances have the paperback’s sales been topped by the ‘e’ edition. As a general (but by no means definitive) rule of thumb, ‘big’ new paperbacks — originally released in hardback first — are rarely outsold by their digital counterparts in the first month or two of release.”

However, he adds, “It isn’t unusual in this price conscious, want-it-now convenience age to see major new hardbacks being outsold by their digital counterparts in their debut months.”

Three books analyzed by John Lewis, UK covers on the top row, Us covers below.
Three books analyzed by John Lewis, UK covers on the top row, Us covers below.

“The Slow Train Out Of The Publishing Cycle”

What could this all this say to publishers? Well, for starters, it’s yet another smoke-gets-in-your-eyes reminder that they don’t have a full picture of book sales, and especially of ebook sales, in which Amazon dominates.

But it also might mean that the general idea of paperbacks falling to ebooks is at least premature.

“If the paperback really is on the slow train out of the publishing cycle,” Lewis writes, “publishers will have to revolutionize how they maintain readers’ interest in their authors’ latest works beyond a cynical and out of the blue price drop six to twelve months later.”

Questions about what the relationship of paperbacks and ebooks might be — and, more importantly, what the lack of full sales data is doing to the business — will be the topic Friday (September 5) in the weekly FutureBook live discussion on Twitter. You’re welcome to join us at 11 a.m. Eastern time, 8 a.m. Pacific, 4 p.m. London, 3 p.m. GMT.

And meanwhile, if Lewis can discern this peculiar element of market dynamic in the low-wattage purview we have of book sales today, imagine what might be detected with better data. Lewis:

A physical book release gives everyone concerned a reason for re-promoting a digital edition, for changing its cover online and re-presenting it to book buyers even though it has existed in the same form for months. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

Porter Anderson / @Porter_Anderson is a journalist focused on books and the industry! the industry! of publishing.

Keep up with Porter on Twitter

More From Thought Catalog