Which Statistics?

There are any number of statements about numbers, including those that cite “lies, damned lies, and statistics,” which was a statement Mark Twain attributed to Disraeli, but which appears in none of Disraeli’s written statements. And then, there are statistics that are accurate, but which misrepresent when applied to smaller segments of whatever’s being characterized by those statistics.

Several weeks ago I was talking to my editor, who read me something from some publishing statistics that indicated that ebooks now represent about thirty percent of all book sales, but the rate of increase in ebook sales has supposedly slowed. After thinking about this for a while, I decided to analyze my own royalty statement [and given the way the figures are presented, it does take a certain amount of raw mathematical number crunching before one can analyze, because the figures are broken down book by book]. If I’m at all remotely representative of the F&SF field, that thirty percent number is way off for fantasy and science fiction books, since for my last royalty statement, sixty-five percent of my sales were in ebook format, and if one eliminates new releases the percentage is even higher.

In terms of revenue, especially for new releases, however, the story isn’t quite so clear. For new releases my sales in the first year are around sixty percent hardcover, and forty percent ebook. In addition, on average, I receive about sixty percent more for a hardcover than for an ebook – and that’s for the initial $14.99 ebook. So while ebooks are a good deal for buyers, even at the higher initial price, they’re anything but a good deal for the author in terms of new hardcover releases.

In the case of backlist books, though, the calculus reverses, especially in my case, because my backlist is so extensive that no bookstore, even the F&SF specialty stores, carries anywhere close to a significant percentage of my backlist, which means that readers can easily purchase ebook versions of books that are difficult, if not impossible, to obtain in print versions.

Generalizing from a sample of one is extremely risky, fraught with danger, and often highly inaccurate. Even a sample of seventy books [roughly the number of separate titles of mine in print – including omnibus editions] is an incredibly small sample, given the millions of books out there. And, on top of that, I have to admit that I’m probably not the average F&SF writer in terms of sales, because I have a pretty substantial backlist, and quite a few books on that backlist are hard to obtain in print format, which will pump up the ebook numbers to some degree. But other authors also have titles that are hard to find in print, and when my numbers come out at twice the supposed industry average, I have to suspect that what’s happening is that the sheer volume of cookbooks, how-to books, and other “genre” books that don’t lend themselves to ebook format or whose readers aren’t as interested in ebooks, for whatever reasons, are overwhelming fiction numbers, and especially F&SF numbers.

I don’t doubt the statistics, but I do doubt their applicability to fiction, and especially to F&SF, and that illustrates the danger of applying “industry-wide” statistics to a sub-set of an industry, because using correct, but misrepresentative statistics… well, that tends to fall into the category of statistics that Twain was describing.

Nonetheless, the numbers I’m seeing personally suggest that brick and mortar bookstores specializing in fiction are facing a very uphill struggle to survive… unless the present trends slow or change rather dramatically… or unless I’m incredibly unrepresentative.

8 thoughts on “Which Statistics?”

  1. JakeB says:

    Of the two new-book bookstores within 5 miles of where I live, one is primarily a children’s bookstore — although last time I stopped by, they had Piketty’s _Capitalism in the 21st Century_ in the front window — and the other gets a lot of their trade from people buying books as gifts and the elderly, whom I suspect to prefer “real” books.

    I buy nearly all my books from these two bookstores, usually having them order them for me. I recognize that the discount I would get from Amazon on many books is paid in the evaporation of so many other bookstores over the last few years, and in the foul way they treat many of their workers.

  2. D Archerd says:

    E-books are a convenient way for me to “test drive” a new author (as well as finding out-of-print books). So from that standpoint, the e-book option means I may purchase from a wider variety of authors than I otherwise might.

    But once I find an author I like, I tend to buy paper books (usually hardcover once I’ve caught up on the backlist so I can get the next one as soon as it’s available). I’m one of those “elderly” readers who prefer “real” books, especially if I’m planning to re-read them (and I re-read most of LEM’s books regularly).

    And while I’ve noticed an overall deterioration in editing quality over the past few years, it seems to be significantly worse on e-books, with glaring “SpellChecker won’t catch that” errors, even from authors who are quite well-educated such as Dan Simmons. It’s become really annoying and makes me suspect that publishers don’t invest the same level of diligence and quality into e-books, though I’ve never seen any official statistics. Just something I’ve noticed…

    Bottom line – if I care deeply about the book and/or author, I’d prefer to purchase and read paper books.

  3. Robert The Addled says:

    I’m unfortunately one of the contributor to the decline of local bookstores.

    I’ve been pretty much Amazon only several years now for a couple of reasons:
    The above mentioned inability to stock the long tail when I ‘discover’ or ‘re-discover’ established Authors or Series. The long-look ahead that allows me to watch for and pre-order favorite Authors or Series. And lastly – TIME spent shopping. Nearest bookstores for me are half an hour off my daily travels – whereas I can shop online at 2 in the morning, or during a snowstorm, etc.

  4. Steve says:

    Since the advent of e-books I have purchased much more frequently. In the past I would wait my turn for the library copy and infrequently purchase. The inconvenience of driving to the bookstore to purchase a book would often result in simply waiting on the library copy. The convenience of pushing a button for an instant download is irresistible.

  5. John Prigent says:

    I live in England so I buy LEM’s books as ebooks mainly because I object to the several-week wait for US-published books to get over here. It’s same for most other US authors, anyone in England has to wait until an importer gets around to importing the books, so ebooks are an obvious buy instead. There are few things more frustrating to a fan than seeing all you lucky people in the US commenting about how excellent a new book is while knowing that one can’t read it for weeks yet. (Actually there is one thing that’s just as annoying – the US publishers who won’t allow their ebooks to be sold in England.)

  6. Tim says:

    Like John I like in England (and I note John does not use the term UK on the eve of the Scottish referendum!), and I also but ebooks. I remember, however, in the late 70s going into a bookshop in Soho London called ‘Dark They Were and Golden-Eyed’. It was like 7th heaven. Rack and rack of SF books – all the US books you could ever want. Gone now, however. So ebooks for me.

  7. Chad says:

    I read about three times the books now as I did in past decades. This is probably over 150 a year. The only paper or hardback which I have bought in the last year was Dresdens recent book because I have the previous dozen in paper. The other was a book of Brust that was an omnibus and thus cheaper then buying three Ebooks of the same titles. All the rest are Ebooks. I’ve whittled my hard cover and paper backs down over the same time selling and giving them away. My library is down to a few hundred hardbacks and these will go to my daughter who interestingly shuns electronic books (Though she reads mine through the new family share feature).

    I would be happy to never again buy a paper or hardback. I have multiple e readers and they all link to my cloud library. If I set one down in my den I can pick another up in my porch and the current book will open in the spot I left it. I can and do take my Ebooks nightly on my 3 mile walks and due to its one handed nature have no problem reading and page turning. This has reinvigorated the drudgery that was nightly exercise.

    The biggest feature of my reading three times the books today as in past decades is cost. I have gravitated to self published authors who’s works are in the .99 to 3.99 range. I have found more good books then I can keep up with and this combined with the excitement of these new authors I feel engaged in their success. I’ve found myself spending hours per week spreading the word of a new series or author on internet websites I frequent and in term following up on reviews by others of the same. I feel its as an exciting time to be a voracious reader as it is to be a new author or newly successful self publisher. For example, I love books like Childs “Jack Reacher” books. I have read a few of his but the cost kept me from buying them and waiting for them at the library. Recently I found an author writing the same style of book but who is self publishing. I gave his intro book a try at $1.99 and loved it and snapped up his series at $4.99. He started a bit over a year ago and is now a top seller in his genre and was able to quit his day job to become a full time writer. This is as exciting for me as it is for him and these are the authors I search for.

    Mr Modesitt, AuthorEarnings.com studies show that books priced at $3.99 to $4.99 are the sweet spot with Less revenue per book but more total books sold. Would you consider experimenting with a series self published at this price point or even a series of older works at this level? I think your works would be successfull and you would realize faster revenue, increased sales and possible new markets.

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