Books and Ebooks: A One book perspective

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I realize that there has been an enormous amount written about how electronic books are or aren’t replacing print books. Take this article a few months ago, about how kindle sales are now outpacing book sales generally on amazon. A year earlier, kindle sales outpaced hardcover sales, and that, too, was big news. With the demise of Borders, the discussion of the future of print books has only intensified.

A lot has been written, but I wanted to say a few words from my own perspective, and that of my own book. The last few books I’ve read have all been on the kindle app for my iPad, but I’m still not completely converted. I still feel a much stronger connection (and have a more visceral memory of) books that I’ve read in paper form than those I’ve got on my e-reader. In my role as a writer, there’s still a big part of me that feels as though hardcover sales “count” more than kindle sales. Never mind that the royalties that we get on both are similar. All of this may simply be an old-fashioned sensibility on my part, and I can accept that.

And what about sales? When we were negotiating our contract, in late 2008, it wasn’t at all obvious that ebooks would become as dominant as they apparently have. The one point that we really pushed on in our contract was to raise our royalty rate for ebook sales. Wiley agreed, but only because I think that at the time, nobody thought it would matter very much one way or the other.

My editors have been kind enough to give me frequent updates about sales: the total number of net shipped hardcover books, and the total number of electronic copies. Over the lifetime of the “User’s Guide” hardcover has outsold electronic 6:1. For a science-y book, this ratio may seem surprisingly high, especially since our book came out right around the time that amazon announced ebooks were outselling hardcovers.

I’ve always found something vaguely fishy about the early claims that ebooks were outselling hardcovers (and later all books) on amazon or elsewhere. I’ve described the amazon sales rank algorithm here, here, and here. As a quick reminder: Amazon keeps track of a running score, and every sale gets you a point. Your score then decays exponentially, with approximately a 12 hour decay time. The scores are then ranked. The details aren’t that important, for ordinary paper books, average sales of about 1 sale/day get you a rank of approximately 130,000, and every doubling of sales improves your average rank by approximately a factor of about 2.7 or so.

I haven’t done the full study for kindle sales, but historically, it seems like ranks are 2-3 times better for the same sales rates in kindle as they would be in hardcover. In other words, it’s easier to be highly ranked in kindle than it is in traditional books, suggesting that there are fewer sales in kindle than in paper books.

That mystery aside, looking at my own sales, things have definitely changed in the 2 1/2 months since I’ve been getting accurate ebook sales numbers directly from Wiley. Over that period, ebook sales have outpaced our increase in “net shipped” books by 2.5:1. Now, I should caution that because these are “net” numbers, they include a minus sign for returns, and I expect, both because of external events (like Borders closing), and because of where my book is in its lifecycle that there are a fair number of returns. On the other hand, the bookscan numbers (helpfully provided by amazon’s “Author Central”) suggest the ratio is more like 2:1 in favor of ebooks.

I can’t say for certain which is the dominant effect: that my book has been out for over a year, and paper sales follow a well-known lifecycle, or that ebooks really are becoming dominant. I will say, however, that I’ve averaged a higher rate of ebook sales in the last 2 1/2 months than I did in the year preceding.

I’d be interested in hearing the thoughts and experiences of other authors and readers.

-Dave

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