One of the statistics that’s commonly batted around these days in publishing is that 70% of book sales in trade publishing are in print. This figure is commonly touted by the AAP (no, not the American Association of Pediatrics, but the American Association of Publishers). And I’d bet it’s pretty accurate. Yesterday, however, Hugh Howey posted some data on his website suggesting that the digital slice of the book sale pie is much, much larger than 30%. I’m also betting Hugh’s right. But how can they both be right?
The answer is really simple. “Trade publishing” is a term of art that means (quoted from the AAP’s website) “Trade Division publishers develop and produce the fiction and non-fiction enjoyed by the general public, in ink-to-paper, eBook and audio versions.” But in AAP’s parlance, it also means, “all trade publishers who are members of our organization.” From its membership list, however, you can see that a lot of digital first publishers don’t belong to the AAP. Samhain is a member, for example, but Entangled and Ellora’s Cave are not. This means that whatever data AAP is getting from its members, it excludes a lot of publishers, including many of the bigger digital-first/only presses and all self-publishers.
What this means is that you can’t extrapolate the composition of the entire market by looking at only one sliver of it (even if it’s a big sliver). The fact that 70% of trade published books are sold in print doesn’t tell us that 70% of all books published sell in print any more than the fact that 70% of all meals at fast food restaurants include french fries tells us that 70% of all meals served in all restaurants include french fries.
And that means both answers can be right. For trade published books, the percentage of books sold in print format may well be 70%. For digital-first and self-published books, however, the percentage sold in digital format is probably on the order of 95%. If you put those two numbers together, you’ve got to come out with more than 30% of all books being sold in digital format.
Because I like math (and if you’d asked me in high school if I’d ever say that, I would have said you were nuts!), let’s conservatively estimate the actual value. We’ll pretend, for the sake of argument, that 25% of all book sales are self-published and 75% come from publishers. Let’s further pretend (very conservatively) that the breakdown on the 75% of books from publishers is actually 70/30 (even though lots of digital first publishers aren’t included in those statistics). Ready?
25% x 95% = 22.50%
75% x 30% = 23.75%
By those numbers, conservatively, 46.25% of all books sold are now sold in digital format. I’d bet it’s more. But that’s a low, low estimate that accepts a lot of the figures from traditional publishers as gospel. This means we’re already effectively at parity (especially because some books are always going to skew toward print–who buys a coffee table book in digital format?).
Consider the coffee smelled.