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One of the ongoing conversations at Book Expo America this year was the growth of ebooks. How fast is the market transforming? Is it cannibalizing the print book market? If so, which part? Or is it expanding readership? And all of the potential ramifications and implications of these questions.

I heard people say things like, “yes, ebooks are only a small percent of total book sales now, but you can see how they’re going to be 60% or 70% of the market in a few years.” And I thought to myself, “Really?” The “book industry” is not just one industry; books are purchased by different types of users and for different reasons. So it stands to reason that different parts of the market will transform at different speeds.

What currently sells in physical books

When you break out broad categories of physical books sold in 1st quarter 2011 (data from Bookscan), here’s what you see:

1st Quater book Sales

So the single largest category of physical books sold is adult non-fiction which makes up 42% of that market.

What’s selling in ebooks

On the other hand, when you look at what’s selling in ebooks, it’s primarily narrative. The only real data I can cite here are our own figures and the ebook bestsellers lists from individual e-tailers, which are dominated by fiction (the NY Times e-bestsellers separate fiction and non-fiction, but you can’t infer comparative volumes). For example,

  • Looking at BN Nookbook top 100 bestsellers, there were 12 non-fiction ebooks on the list.
  • On the Kindle top 100 bestsellers (paid), there were 16 non-fiction titles.

These counts were taken at one point in time last week and these lists change hourly. I checked back 3 other times and the results were roughly the same (under 20% of the bestselling titles). This is pretty much in line with what’s being reported by publishers.

Here is a chart of Sourcebooks’ unit sales for physical books:

Sourcebooks Physical book sales chart

And the same breakout for ebooks:

Sourcebooks eBook sales chart

So while the majority of our physical book sales are in adult non-fiction, the majority of our ebook sales are in adult fiction.

So what’s missing in this picture?

Right now we’re seeing relatively weak conversion of adult non-fiction to ebooks. While this category of physical books has declined a bit in the last few years (down 1.1% in Q1 2011, per Bookscan), as noted above, it’s still 42% of the print book business.

 Again via Bookscan, here were the 5 largest categories of adult non-fiction for Q1 2011:

Reference

15%

General Non-Fiction

12%

Health/Fitness/Medicine/Sports

11%

Religion/Bibles

11%

Biography/Autobiography/Memoir

9%

 

Reference is the biggest category of non-fiction and our experience at Sourcebooks is that reference is also the hardest category to get right in ebooks. At Sourcebooks, reference is highly formatted: lots of subsections, sidebars, pictures, diagrams, pull-quotes, etc. It’s highly “browseable,” “dippable,” not necessarily a linear reading experience. All the things that we put in to make the book more experiential as a printed book are the very things that are harder to replicate as an experience in an ebook. And there are so many different kinds of reference books.

The other difficult transformation area right now is children’s books (as distinct from young adult books). E-tailers’ bestsellers lists, publisher-reported data, and our own data are not suggesting strong conversion to ebooks yet for juvenile books, outside of cross-over YA (e.g., The Hunger Games and Twilight).

The importance of narrative

Stories seem to be at the heart of ebooks right now. Even the successful non-fiction ebooks we’re seeing skew to narrative - memoirs and biography and history. They’re all stories – and they’re all linear reading experiences.

Are apps the future of adult non-fiction and/or children’s books?

One of the interesting questions being asked today is what can digital look like for illustrated children’s books and reference products? It’s one of the things we’ve been thinking about a lot at Sourcebooks. Although it is still early days, I am inclined to believe that we are likely to make real progress with apps and websites. For example, you can look at the Books bestsellers list on Apple’s App Store and see a lot of illustrated children’s books.

That thinking is also why we decided to turn the #1 bestselling Fiske Guide to Colleges into the iPad app Fiske Interactive College Guide. And it’s at the heart of the development work that we’re now doing with our authors and other partners.

What do you think? Feel free to jot your ideas in the comments.

As always, looking forward to the conversation.

Dominique

Comments  

 
0 # Jack W Perry 2011-06-14 12:08
Thanks for the data. Very informative.

I think it also important to look at what can be found free or in a more complete form via a website when looking at non-fiction.

For years I bought the almanac - I don't anymore nor do I buy an ebook with the info (is one even available.). I get my info from various sites etc.
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+3 # Dominique 2011-06-14 16:52
I think you're right about this, Jack. And I suspect it's part of what's driving the decline in some reference categories (such as Almanacs). The info is being replaced by the web.
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-2 # Flora 2011-06-14 12:37
Hi Dominique,

We're a new indie publisher in Canada (Sourcebooks is a great inspiration), and we too are finding that the demand for print is higher than for ebooks.

Having just put out our first nonfiction book (MONOCULTURE: HOW ONE STORY IS CHANGING EVERYTHING - serious nonfiction, not a reference book, biography or memoir, etc.), we were surprised to find that ebooks aren't yet a preferred format. Even major book editors at our national newspapers ask for print copies, saying they're not ereader equipped or don't know where their ereaders are. Yet some big publishers in Canada are now setting up nonfiction digital imprints. In any case, we wonder whether the ebook "advice" and "best practices" re. pricing, sales expectations, etc. apply to nonfiction. I don't think we can assume that they do. As time goes on, it'll be interesting to see how the nonfiction ebook market presents different challenges and opportunities than the fiction market. Time will tell -
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-2 # Dominique 2011-06-14 16:55
Really great question, Flora. I'm not sure the things we're learning about fiction ebooks are going to translate to non-fiction. Or maybe it depends on the kind of non-fiction category too. Interesting. Thanks!
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-2 # Elizabeth Everson 2011-06-14 14:44
I think e-publishing might need to address the differences in reading style on e-readers.
* an F-shaped pattern of text
reading takes place on computer screens.

* Varying typeface helps to draw attention to pertinent information.s

* Hyperlinks are really desirable.

The empty part of the screen
can be filled with a picture,
A graph, or left blank.

Non-fiction, or fiction, all
might benefit from a more e-reader
friendly format.

Here's an interesting link for discussion purposes:
useit.com/.../...
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+2 # Dominique 2011-06-14 16:54
Interesting link. Thanks! I need to spend some time thinking about it.
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-2 # S.L. Pierce 2011-06-14 16:35
I can't believe how non-fiction beats fiction in paper books! What are people reading?
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-2 # Dominique 2011-06-14 16:51
Last week they were reading:

• Heaven is For Real
• David MCCULLOUGH new book: The Greater Journey
• In The Garden of Beasts
• Bossy Pants
and • Unbroken
(among lots of other non-fiction books).

But yes, people buy more non-fiction than fiction in paper books as reported by Bookscan. There's some other things we don't know. Like how does reading split out for books borrowed from the library. Or what about used books. We have less transparency than we need in terms of what readers/consumers/users are actually doing.
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-2 # Judy Masters 2011-06-15 02:03
There is much that remains unclear about the future of the book and its format. I predict a surge of popularity in the digital format and it will impact on the volume of printed editions, but one would expect a surge in uptake in the early days based solely around the novelty of the ebook. I don't think realistic assessments will be possible until there is some maturity in the format. No one seems to have mentioned the economic downturn worldwide as a factor in the failure of bricks and mortar bookstores, or poor management, as I believe was the case, with the RedGroup in Australia.
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+4 # Cynthea wellings 2011-06-15 07:54
We sell reference books and can confidently state paper is no more. It is profoundly limited in it's application. We are having great fun dabbling and experimenting with online mediums to transfer knowledge.
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-2 # Dominique 2011-06-15 09:59
Interesting. Hi Cynthea, are you selling ebooks? Through ebook channels (kindle, nook, ibookstore?) or are you selling the information in some other ways.

I think we met at Tools of Change or DBW? You do nursing books and conferences, right? I think you had a colleague with you as well (hoping my memory is still working). GREAT! Well-defined vertical. Would love to hear more about what kinds of products you're selling and how you're selling them.
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+2 # Todd Sattersten 2011-06-15 12:00
A few thoughts on your post:
-I work in the business book space of non-fiction and I continue to hear that non-fiction is lagging in adoption versus the fiction launches of late. I wonder if that is driven by a different set of customer types: the primary reader buying a book for themselves, the person buying as a gift for a special occasion (I believe it is easier to buy non-fiction as a gift), you might also consider the retailer and media as customers directing people.
-I also wonder if non-fiction ebooks sales are instead being captured apps. After buying StarWalk, iBird, and Lonely Planet's language apps, I don't know when I would buy a guide book again UNLESS i wanted detail stories about those subjects but those are different kinds of books.
-My last thought is fiction may be a alternative to movies and TV, just a preferred format, a high fidelity substitute, the same way some choose audio vs print.
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+2 # Kirk Biglione 2011-06-15 17:31
Thanks for this Dominique.

It's interesting that many of the categories you've identified as being challenging in a traditional linear ereading environment seem to be doing well in the App Store (at least in terms of the total number of apps available).

I'm curious how the Sourcebooks apps are doing in relation to your ebook sales? I know it's still early, but long-term it seems like much of the growth in the challenging categories will occur outside of the realm of what we currently consider to be a book (e or p). At some point the industry will need to begin tracking total digital sales, of which traditional ebooks will be but one segment.
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+2 # Dominique 2011-06-17 07:51
Hi Kirk!
Yes. that's true. But I don't think we can recoup the $$ lost in books through apps. Think apps need to be part of a bigger strategic focus and mostly seem to be functioning as marketing. Though there are some things we're going to try in Q4 that may help us understand this better. Been thinking about doing an apps post, pulling some of this info together.
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+2 # maryann 2011-06-15 20:01
Thanks for the comprehensive article about what books are selling. I am not surprised that more fiction is selling as e-books. The new reading devices seem geared for reading for fun and entertainment as opposed to more serious reading of nonfiction. If I want to read a nonfiction book on a topic I like to have the book in paper so I can highlight points and easily go back and forth in pages for reference. I know you can highlight and bookmark with the reading devices, but I find the process cumbersome. Maybe I just spent too many years in libraries with reference books to be comfortable using my Kindle for research.
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+2 # Jane Friedman 2011-06-16 17:38
I haven't looked for the numbers, but someone ought to crunch/compare U.S. nonfiction print book sales (in non-narrative categories) for the last few years. I'm willing to bet there's a significant decline; there certainly was at F+W, between 1998-2010, which specializes in information-based nonfiction. That's why the company changed its name from F+W Publications to F+W Media. The growth for them is within online education and multimedia resources.
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+2 # Dominique 2011-06-17 07:48
HI Jane!! Yes, I think that's absolutely right. Think we're seeing a real transition of what was once information-based book sales to the web, where people get the info in lots of different ways. Totally agree and suspect the numbers would support.
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+2 # Joanne D 2011-06-17 11:54
My daughter just graduated from a very large state university. She says that all her textbooks were hardcover. The campus did not promote or encourage eBooks. She also took a publishing course where the Professor asked how many students owned an eReader. My daughter was the only one, which was surprising for the young, tech-generation. So, maybe it's not only the book formatting at issue, but could it be a marketing question on how to reach that nonfiction audience?
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+2 # LisaB 2011-06-17 14:38
I wonder if the difference is because adults probably buy/read more non-fiction than YA (15-30+- yr. range) & they like the feel of a book. Younger customers want to read on an e-reader (new, cool factor) & may tend towards fiction.

Note: That's a good point about utilizing non-fiction by maryann too, altho some e-readers do have highlighting capabilities too.

As far as children's books are concerned, I'm not surprised that children's ebooks aren't that popular. Children love tactile experiences, touch is vitally important to them, so if you buy an ebook - where is it? What do you give your child? They can't see it or feel it. Children love the colors & patterns of wrapping paper, the thrill of finding the present (if you hide the presents like we do), and love to physically tear open the paper to discover what's underneath it! Impossible to translate this type of tactile experience via an e-reader for children.
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+2 # Bridget Weide Brooks 2011-06-17 15:37
I agree with Jane Friedman that there is a large segment of information-based, nonfiction books that are no longer being tracked as sales -- yet are still being published and sold.

I used to buy 25-30 print books a year on marketing and sales topics. Nowadays, I'm much more likely to purchase books on this topic as e-books (NOT through Kindle or Nook) but as PDFs/electronic downloads from the authors themselves. I purchase dozens of these "ebooks" a year now, ranging in price from a few dollars up to $97 per books -- yet they are not "tracked" in conventional reporting systems.

In the same manner, I sell dozens of a particular ebook title to my list ("Write Great Resumes Faster" being a primary one) annually, and no one reports (or asks for!) my sales figures. The ebook is a second edition of a book that was previously "in print" a few years ago.

So the statistics might also be wrong because there is no way to report the information accurately.
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+2 # James Byrd 2011-06-19 18:46
E-reading devices are definitely are "not there yet" for non-fiction, particularly the lower-end devices like Kindle. I feel this way as both a publisher and a reader.

At this point, I doubt I will buy a fiction book in print form ever again, unless I find something I want to own forever (which is maybe 0.1% of the books I read). The Kindle buying and reading experience is just too convenient!

On the other hand, I recently bought four non-fiction books in print form because I wanted them readily available for reference. I didn't even consider getting them in Kindle, although some were available that way.

I'm sure my feelings will change over time as the devices become more capable, the standards stabilize with improved capabilities, and some decent creation tools finally become available at a reasonable price.

We aren't there yet.
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-1 # Talei Loto 2011-07-06 23:10
Interesting to see all the graphs. For non-fiction,as others have already said, depending on what you want, you can find it online. For Childrens illustrated books, it's important for young kids to enjoy the paper versions first, sure its convenient to carry e format for travel etc but I'd be sad if thats the only format in future. I am torn with the wonderful technology for interacting here vs. the feel of paper and when I see young kids carrying a battered well-worn paper version around, I know they much they love reading. Kindles and nooks,you can't cuddle up with, they're hard and cold. Place for both options though definitely. (IMHO)

Ps:Pottermore for HP books clearly leads the way for YA and General audiences, am sure we'll see more of this concept, selling direct and with technology available, the sites don't just sell books, they sell entertainment.
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+1 # Karen Fisher-Alaniz 2011-07-28 18:53
I had an interesting experience recently and blogged about it. While we think of the buyers of children's books being mainly parents, I happened to have a 4-year old and an e-reader in my lap (at a non-kid friendly house)at the same time. What to do? I quickly found a children's book on it and read it to her. That experience got me to thinking that perhaps grandparents, aunts and uncles, and others will purchase e-books for their little ones just because they can. It beats keeping a pile of children's books around (unless you're a bookie like me) just in case the kids visit. So, I think there is still a lot of morphing to be done that is not even imagined yet. ~Karen
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