Sales of digital novels are soaring – so why don’t best-seller lists reflect this trend?
After more than a decade of writing novels, it is the stuff of dreams to have one finally make it into the Top 10. But when asked about my sales, I have no idea whether I should be celebrating my good fortune, or feeling furious that I’m not several places higher in the charts.
E-books are skewing the book ratings. As digital sales are not collated anywhere, the true picture of what the British public is reading is becoming increasingly unclear – and hiding a rare success story. Last week, for example, my e-book sales totalled roughly 50 per cent of my paperback sales – 6,000 “invisible” sales on top of 11,500 visible ones. And I am not alone.
No 1 best-seller SJ Watson has sold almost one e-book of his thriller Before I Go To Sleep for every paperback sold since January. I know this because I asked him. But I wouldn’t have known otherwise because, while paperback sales are collated by Nielsen Bookscan and published by newspapers, digital sales are known only to the publishers and authors of each book. This is not just a problem for literary types. It has ramifications for what everybody else actually gets to read.
According to Jonny Geller, MD of Curtis Brown literary agents, the lack of transparency is making it impossible for publishers, agents and authors to assess the market accurately. “The Nielsen book chart is print-orientated, so many genres such as thrillers, women’s fiction and literary are highly inaccurate,” he says. “Some of our authors have had an equal e-book sale to print in a week but are low down on the best-seller chart. Without this information, how can publishers know how to invest in the future? How can a bookseller give their customer what they want?”
Philip Jones, deputy editor of trade magazine The Bookseller, agrees. “It’s a growing blind spot for everybody and particularly difficult for publishers and agents when trying to acquire new titles or bring them to market. It’s very annoying if you’ve got a book that should be No 1 and the chart doesn’t reflect that.���
Part of the problem is that internet retailer Amazon, by far the dominant force in Britain’s e-book market with its Kindle device, declines to share its figures. Earlier this month, it released a list of the top ten British e-book best-sellers, including such chart luminaries as Lee Child and Sophie Kinsella, as well as less famous names such as self-publishing phenomenon Kerry Wilkinson. It did not include figures.
Speak to authors, and you will find many frustrated by the invisibility of their e-book sales. As someone who frequently wishes she had a pound for every time the death throes of “women’s fiction” have been predicted, the last few weeks have led to another startling discovery. Thanks to e-books, the fiction market is actually in rude health, with readers of genre fiction – thrillers, romance – among the heaviest users of digital devices.
E-reading devices have made reading sexy again (they are unattractive to thieves as they can be disabled remotely). Some statistics suggest that readers buy three times as many books once they have an e-reader.
This is despite the fact that the price of e-books is still relatively high compared with hardbacks. Indeed, publishers are having to adapt to an unpleasant new possibility. The US Justice Department and the EU are investigating whether to break up the system whereby publishers set the price at which electronic books are sold (keeping the price higher than retailers such as Amazon would like). Sir Salman Rushdie has said that the end of this system of “fair pricing that allows authors to make a living… would destroy the world of books”.
“Digital has been an absolute boon for certain types of authors and publishers. Last year (book sales) were seven per cent down, but if you add in digital sales the market actually grew a tiny amount,” says Jones. “The wider economy is not exactly in the best of health, so the fact that the book market is still robust and growing is a positive thing.”
The e-book market is growing at an astonishing rate. According to Jones, 2011 saw a 500 per cent increase in e-book sales, and industry experts expect a similar increase this year. Penguin e-book revenues were up 106 per cent year on year; the company says revenues from digital and services businesses across the group will this year overtake those from traditional publishing. Those of us who fretted about the disappearance of paperback books from the daily commute several years ago now – and agreed with Joanna Trollope’s assertion, reported in this newspaper last week, that “you cannot love a library of e-books” – have nevertheless watched people reading on “single-purpose” devices with satisfaction.
E-books may be changing the way we read – and even write. I’m not the only women’s commercial fiction author experiencing an upsurge in the number of male readers. Freed from the trauma of publicly reading a book with a “girlie” cover, men are widening their choices. And one told me that his wife now feels free to read thriller writer Lee Child on her e-reader.
There are moves to offer “added value” – music, pictures, animated extras. But the new devices also offer new forms of collaborative, or “social” reading. The new Kobo Vox, for example, allows you to leave comments, visible to other readers, at points in the text. Its Pulse system shows you not just how many people have bought a particular book on their Kobo, and where and what time of day they read it, but also how many finished it.
I can’t be the only person secretly fascinated to know how many people really did get beyond page 42 of Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. “Being able to see that 90 per cent of readers actually finished a certain book against 20 per cent for another title you’re thinking of buying could influence your purchasing decision,” says Lindsey Mooney, vendor manager for Kobo.
But the mention of such “comments” prompts a reflexive shudder in writers. “If you’re the kind of writer who obsessively pores over reviews then it probably would be helpful,” says best-selling chick lit author Jenny Colgan. “I’m simply not robust enough for that, so would have to add it to my list of things to ignore while humming a cheery tune.”
Philip Jones notes that some authors are adapting their writing to maximise their sales in this new market: “One told me he puts a cliffhanger 10 per cent of the way through any e-book because that’s the most you can give away as a free sample, so the reader is more likely to go on and buy it.” And best-selling romance writer Katie Fforde recently produced an e-book short story solely to help promote her new book. It has done, she says, “very well”, selling some 7,500 copies.
Ultimately digital is still a hidden success story, one that Lindsey Mooney says “the whole industry” wants to make transparent. And the situation may finally be changing. Late last year, in the US, where the Kindle’s dominance has been challenged by Barnes & Noble’s Nook e-reader, retailers finally started sharing e-book data. The Wall Street Journal now publishes weekly combined and e-book charts. Industry insiders say Britain may follow if the Kobo, and Waterstones’ own e-reading device billed for release later this year, prove to be serious competitors.
Until then, we writers will just keep guessing who is actually selling the most copies. And we will be grateful that, when we see someone hunched over an electronic device, it’s increasingly likely to display a novel rather than a game of Angry Birds.