skip to Main Content
Opinion: No, E-book Sales Are Not Falling – The Self-Publishing Author Perspective

Opinion: No, E-book Sales Are Not Falling – The Self-Publishing Author Perspective

Orna on the move

Orna Ross: “When are we going to start telling the truth about what's really happening in our marketplace?”

Contrary to recent reports, e-book reading is up everywhere, says Orna Ross. From the self-publishing author's perspective, the opportunity is huge. But when are publishing sales figures and bestseller lists going to include self-published books in their data?

Another day, another story delightedly announcing the downfall of digital.

The Canadian and (as far as I can see without a subscription) the London stories touted their conclusions while blithely ignoring the existence of indie-penned ebooks. The NYT article did mention Amazon and self-publishing authors at the end, but made no attempt to enumerate their sales.

Or come up with any data of their own.

Or interview anyone about how undocumented sales by self-publishers meant this falling figure, presented by the Association of American Publishers, must be flawed.

Neither did they feel any compunction in headlining their article: “Ebook Sales Slip…”, while knowing they were failing to include what is estimated to be 30% of the e-book market.

Not Facts, But Attitude

What’s possibly even more troubling than such lazy analysis from these “papers of record” is the mindset that gives rise to it.

The newspaper business has been hit hard by digital and the NYT article made its prejudices clear as it kicked off with “collective panic over the uncertain future of print” among “publishers and authors [who] feared that cheaper e-books would cannibalize their business.”

What about those of us, also publishers and authors, for whom cheaper ebooks are our business?ereading is alive and well

E-book Reading Is Up, Everywhere

This barely restrained glee about supposed e-book decline is not just sloppy journalism. It's ideology posing as information. Thankfully for writers and readers, it's just plain wrong.

Where there is no prejudice or vested interests in what the NYT calls “the tug of war between pixels and print”, in libraries, for example, the indicators are that e-reading is still on the rise, even in the US, widely agreed to be the most e-book saturated market.

Library Journal reported last week that their e-book catalogues increased by 37% in the past year, with demand for adult ebooks increasing by 80% in that time.

E-book is clearly the preferred reading format for a large percentage of readers in the US and UK, a sometimes option for many others, and now beginning to take off internationally, through what publishers are calling “globile”: the expansion of reading on mobile phones in countries that traditionally have had a problem accessing books.

Readers in territories like China, India and Africa choose to read ebooks not on dedicated devices but on their low-cost smart phones.

  • China, currently the world's largest smartphone market, is taking to e-reading on mobile phones in a big way.  Apple iBooks just opened in China and Vearsa, one of the big up-and-coming ebook distributors, recently visited China, with a view to “The scope and impact of eBooks in China is evolving at an incredible pace” says Patrick Crowley, Digital Marketing Manager at Vearsa, who recently visited China to assess the market there. “There are a number of industries in the hunt for e-book revenues: online retailers, hardware manufacturers, social networks, telecom operators, search engines and even traditional brick-and-mortar stores.”
  • India became the 10th-largest book market in 2014 and is forecasted to experience the fastest growth in total book revenue over the next few years, expected to jump into second place for e-book consumption, ahead of the USA, as soon as 2017. India officially has 30m. more internet users than the USA has people, even though only 27% of its people are as yet online.
  • A UNESCO surveyed over 4,000 people in seven countries (Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Kenya, Nigeria, Pakistan and Zimbabwe) to learn more about their mobile reading habits and found 65% of respondents reported an increase in their time spent reading, because of content now available on their phones. 90% said they planned to read more on their mobile devices over the next year. The report’s authors conclude that “mobile reading represents a promising, [and] still underutilized, pathway to text” for the world's least privileged nations.

All in all it is estimated that global book revenue will rise $8 billion from 2014 to 2019. Much of that growth will be in e-books as the global e-Book market has been valued at $14.5 billion dollars and is expected to reach more than $22 billion by 2017 (Kobo Book Report). “The advances that we’re seeing year-over-year are incredible,” Kobo chief content officer Michael Tamblyn said. “More publishers, users and new technology [are] changing the face of the industry at an unprecedented pace.”

And that's before the Internet giants projects like Facebook's  internet.org get going. Google, Apple and Amazon are all investing in growing books and readership globally and encouraging reading and literacy wherever they go. Google's Internet Saathi project, for example, has trained teams touring India by bicycle showing rural women how to connect with their smartphones.

And, as these opportunities expand, indie authors are where they always are: in the vanguard. 

Relishing their ownership of all rights and access to technology. Banding together to share information about how they can take their books beyond their own borders. [As some commentators point out below, an excellent source of information about these developments is Mark Williams, who runs a Facebook Page here and blog here]

That's a far more exciting story than e-books' supposed fall but you won't be reading about it in your newspaper anytime soon. Traditional media relies on flawed statistics put out by trade publishing, and the companies that analyse the industry: Neilsen and Bowker book data and trade magazines like The Bookseller and Publishers Weekly.

Open Up To Indie Authors

Those who are responsible for publishing industry data need to find a way to figure the book sales of self-publishing authors, not as something separate, but as an intrinsic part of the business.

We are a sizable part of publishing now. We are successful booksellers now. So can organizations please stop putting out “bestseller” lists that leave off some of the biggest bestsellers?

Yes, there are challenges in reporting author-published books if you rely solely, as Publishers Weekly (US) and The Bookseller (UK) both do, on trade publishing figures and Nielsen BookScan data, which in turn rely on ISBNs, International Standard Book Numbers.

Because so many indies see no advantage in using ISBNs, Nielsen numbers cover not the 85% of the market the company claims, but figures from a selection of corporate publishers that are increasingly inaccurate as self-publishing takes hold.

Author Earnings has convincingly estimated that as many as one-third of self-publishing authors don’t use ISBNs, and that many of these are the higher selling indies. This enterprising team of two, indie author Hugh Howey and a number cruncher known as Data Guy, has also shown there are ways to find data that would allow for more inclusive estimates.

IndieReader another small indie effort punching above its weight, run by Amy Edelman, puts together a list, each Monday, from The New York Times, USA Today and Amazon.com bestseller lists.

Why is none of this data being integrated by publishing analysts? Why are none of them doing any research of their own? Why are people happily neglecting to do their jobs?

At a minimum, if the data compilers won’t or can't include self-publishers, they could to put a disclaimer on their misrepresentative charts. We recently proposed the following simple formula to one compiler of such lists:

“These charts represent conglomerate publishing only. A significant number of books were also sold this week by independent authors and publishers.”

and suggested they might put it at the end of each chart.

We're not holding our breath.

The Death of Print?

Open Up To Indie Authors

It's Time to Open Up To Indie Authors

No, p-books is not going away, any more than e-books are. Even in the US, the country where most e-books are sold, print still accounts for a sizeable chunk of the market (though probably not the 65 – 70% quoted by the same flawed figures that skew the e-book data).

But to say this is not the same thing as saying e-book sales are falling.

Print is far from dead and indie authors need to find a way to make print work better for them. ALLi is currently talking to Ingram about ways in which that might happen.

There is no war between print and pixels in the indie author's mind. Both are ways to reach readers.

And there's no war for the readers either, as demonstrated by an email I received from a reader this week, as he put in a pbook order on my website. “I ordered the ebook 2 days ago,” he wrote, “and am really enjoying it.. [and]… I decided I really needed a physical copy for my shelf.”

This is by no means a rare occurrence. Many readers love both formats as do most writers. Just like DVDs were not the death of cinema, e-books are growing readership overall. Another good news story that goes largely ignored.

So can we please quit the phoney print-pixel wars and start telling the truth about what's really happening in our marketplace?

We've said it before and we'll on keep saying it until self-publishing is fully integrated into publishing ecosystems everywhere: it's time to open up to indie authors

The truth about #ebook sales: they're rising - by @OrnaRoss Share on X


Author: Orna Ross

Orna Ross is a bestselling and award-winning author of historical fiction and inspirational poetry, and a creativity facilitator. As founder-director of the Alliance of Independent Authors, she has been named one of The Bookseller’s Top 100 people in publishing. 


This Post Has 28 Comments
  1. I would like to suggest that you amend this blog post to reflect your informational source, since the materials regarding China are from Mark Williams’ posts and blogging – posts and blogs he’s delivered to independent writers for the last few years. All of his information pre-dates this post, which, to my mind, should be acknowledged as a matter of course. He is an invaluable and highly regarded source of critical data for indies seeking “globile” success – that last is one he coined and should also be attributed to him. LT

    1. HI Laura, As I said to Jean, I agree that Mark is a great source of information and yes, his work around international outlets for indie author should be acknowledged. In this post, I was addressing the idea of falling ebook sales, rather than advice. The info around China was actually taken from conversations had directly with a number of commentators and services feeding that territory, like Trajectory at the IndieReCon conference in London last April, since when they have been distributing ALLi members book; Vearsa at the NINC conference First Word Day in October and Douban and PublishDrive at the Frankfurt Book Fair. I had no idea that Mark coined the word “globile”… I have heard many people use it. Delighted to attribute it to him, it’s a clever term and he is a clever commentator and I have often pointed ALLi members in his direction and will, of course, continue to do so.

  2. I believe I read some of your facts and figrues, specifically regarding China and ebook reading there, first from Mark Williams, on his Fb page and on a few others. Shouldn’t you credit him? Isn’t this a type of plagiarism, stealing his information without at least making mention and thanking him for compiling this information? I should think so.

        1. Jean, you need to understand this information is in the possession of many people, not just the person that you receive it from. Our online conference last April https://selfpublishingadvice.org/indierecon-2015/ addressed China and India and we have published many posts on this. https://selfpublishingadvice.org/self-publishing-and-translation-in-china/ and it appears regularly in our news bulletins e.g. https://selfpublishingadvice.org/168582-china-gets-big-bunch-of-apple/ We have also led people to Mark’s work in other posts e.g. https://selfpublishingadvice.org/how-to-find-the-best-author-services-for-self-publishing-your-books/. Mark is one person working in this area and there are many others. I understand your loyalty but you are mistaken in thinking there is plagiarism here or that anyone owns these facts.

  3. Thanks for an insightful piece, Orna. With all industry statistics deeply flawed right now, and most newspapers and trade journals uncritically parroting the press releases of the organisations they support, it’s important for writers like you to publish articles that attempt to be more evidence based. Some of the commenters have disagreed with elements of your article. That’s great because it means people are actually thinking critically about the topic.

    I have my own slight disagreement with both your article and the New York Times article you referenced (which to be fair did attempt some balance toward the end). Dividing the publishing world into traditional and self-publishing models risks masking the growth of a major new player: Amazon through its own imprints.

    I track the amazon.com science fiction bestseller charts and have noticed a growth during 2015 of the number of Amazon-imprint titles high in the charts.

    Amazon is not a member of the American Association of Publishers, but I understand its paperback sales do link through Nielsen and will be included in ‘industry’ statistics provided by trad-model bodies such as the AAP. However, Amazon-imprint sales are predominantly through the Kindle format, which are not reported to the AAP or anyone else. Although Amazon imprints have been major players for several years they have ramped up their promotional efforts in recent months to great success.

    And it isn’t just in science fiction that Amazon is doing so well. For example, last week Amazon started their pre-launch promotion for a raft of own-imprint titles due to release on December 1st. For a few days, the amazon.com Kindle Literature & Fiction chart (essentially all adult fiction titles) had Amazon-imprint titles in all the top-4 slots, and the highest ranked traditionally published book only managed #10, the rest being self-published. That top-9 alone represents tens of thousands of sales per day that don’t appear in any of these ‘industry statistics’ attempting to prove that e-Books are dying. That the ‘industry statistics’ are not fit for purpose is old news, but that Amazon is pushing their own imprints so hard now that they can guarantee bestsellers is a story that hasn’t fully broken. And that isn’t surprising, because these bestsellers are from sales that don’t exist if you buy into the deeply flawed worldview reported by the AAP.

    1. This is a really important point, Tim, and thank you for making it. You’re right that this story hasn’t been fully covered and I agree it should. I tried to find a way to contact you through your website but couldn’t see how. Perhaps you might drop us an email to further discuss?

  4. I understand that William Ash would like completely unbiased journalism, but I think there is a place for heartfelt argument as well, as long as it does not masquerade as factual journalism. People do tend to attack methodology when they can’t argue with the point being made.
    The main information we take away from Orna’s post is that the mainstream publishers are still quoting stats based on their own sales, which ignores about a third of book sales. So their conclusions fall under the old category, “Garbage in, garbage out.”
    Joel Friedlander’s point about declining sales of designated readers is probably accurate. However it’s iffy to draw any conclusions from that, when so many people are reading books on their phones.
    Anyone who takes glee in a temporary blip in ebook sales statistics is whistling in the wind. The balance between ebooks and paper books will always be fluid, and I suspect the ebooks will continue to gain for quite some time.

    1. Thanks for jumping in Gordon. I agree about the sales of e-readers leveling off and absolutely, that’s not the same as saying e-books are in decline. It’s not the publishing houses themselves that cause us most concern. Companies will always put out press releases that favor their own world view. It’s up to journalists and analysts, like the trade magazines, to see beyond the PR and bring good information to the trade, and the wider world. That’s where we need to see change first. After so many years of self-publishing, it’s time. If not now, when?

    2. Good points, Gordon. The point of what I was saying about e-readers is that reading is moving toward smartphones and tablets, and away from dedicated devices. The conclusion I drew from the Pew study is that more people are reading, in more places, and more easily, and that’s very good news for indie authors. In fact, I went into this in some detail on Monday on my blog.

  5. So why to we have to slam professional journalists to make a point? When a post begins with personal attacks, it really is saying it has no credible story. As far as sloppy reporting, I would say this post is sloppy. One fact does not always correlate with another. Sale of ebooks could be down and library holding of ebooks up simply because libraries are still catching up with electronic holdings. And what are these holding? Jane Austen? As far as 4,000 people in very poor nations are reading, who do you think these people are? The poorest, or the most affluent? I suspect these readers tend to be the affluent, especially ones with smart phones. And we are talking about 600 people in each country–I am not sure that would be enough to support a single author.

    The news is simply reporting that ebook purchases are down in the US and UK. How does China and their reading habits contradict that? (How many here write in Chinese BTW?) Or are you saying the ebook purchases can only go up and any information contradicting that must be false? I seem to remember ALLi ethics campaign. We like to slam the media as unethical (and the book world is just full of intrigue), but I do not see this post as anything but misleading. I did not join a trade-publishing bashing organization–I can go to Authors Earning for that and get fed dubious statistic to feed a “world view.”

    Very disappointing.

    1. Hi William, this is an opinion post, in our Monday Opinion slot but no personal attack was intended, or I think, made. India, by the way, has the largest middle-class in the world. It’s a great emerging market and services like Trajectory and Douban are making China a viable possibility too. I don’t think it’s at all misleading to say that e-reading is on the up, everywhere, but of course as indies, we’re likely to have a range of opinions on that. There is no intention to “bash”, this is a public appeal for change (in the wake of many private appeals). Thanks for joining the conversation and I hope we can agree to differ without being too disappointed in each other.

  6. Orna,

    Good to point up the prejudices and slanted reporting in some of the media. I wouldn’t put the Pew report in the same category. They are very open about their methodology and they are simply surveying people and reporting the results. These surveys are also valuable because they’ve been doing them for years, allowing for at least some trends to become visible. For instance, in the recent Device Ownership report, they make no statements about declining readership for e-books, but they do point out that fewer people are reading these books on dedicated e-readers, and they didn’t ask any of the people surveyed about who published the books themselves. I found that the surveys had lots of interesting data.

    1. Hey Joel, completely agree. Alas, it’s the way the figures were picked and reported that’s most revealing of a mindset that needs to shift. Thanks for popping by!

  7. Good morning, Orna. I’m a bit late to this party because I’ve been busy promoting and selling ebooks. You are dead on when you rail against misinformation that gets passed around as gospel. I’m an indie author and I love it. It took me a solid year to learn the digital industry, and I’m still learning. Most indie authors I know and network with hope for the glory of having a title on the NYT or USA Today Best seller lists. A colleague who has a unit contracted with an online publisher saw her book make the USA Today list after a .99 promo on Bookbub. But the book did NOT get tagged on Amazon as a best seller. An ebook I haven’t promoted in 45 days has better sales stats than the USA Today best seller. After the book returned to full price, its sales stats sank to China. Faded Glory or False Glory? One other little tidbit: A .99 ebook not enrolled in Amazon Select earns a 35% royalty of which the publisher gets 60%, the author 40% or 14 cents a unit sold. I know for a fact it only takes between 5K and 7K in sales for a .99 unit to make the bottom rungs of the USA Today best seller list. You can do the math. I can tell you that I see a ROI five times that after I run a unit free or priced on Bookbub. Nielsen isn’t counting my digital sales. I don’t give a fig. I was trad pubbed for 20 years and lucky to earn 24 cents per unit sold. As an indie, I earn right at five times that per unit sold. I love it. I love the entire process of choosing my editors, cover artists and formatter. Even the frustration is exciting. Anyway: Great post. I hope it helps authors to think for themselves.
    Jackie Weger

  8. Great post, Orna, thank you. I love the way you drill down into the smoke and mirrors that besets publishing right now.

    ‘Ideology posing as information’ is a cracking description that’s on the bullseye; I see this constantly in my own field of non-fiction work. It’s very depressing but incredibly pervasive.

    Part of the problem is there are so many media pages, real or otherwise, to fill, that making up fairy story reports is one way to produce filler…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Latest advice, news, ratings, tools and trends.

Back To Top
×Close search