E-books, the UK and Me

The most recent specific figures I’ve seen from a wholly reliable source were that in 2010, ebook sales were constituting around 9% of the book sales market in the US and something like 4% in the UK.  Both rising fast, of course.  So they’re already significant – undoubtedly higher than those numbers as I write – and will be highly significant within a very short period of time (a year or two at the most?).  I imagine they’ll be a crucial, quite possibly the dominant, force in the market shortly thereafter.

All of which is not what you’d call good news for the bricks and mortar bookstores, but we’re not here today to mourn the casualties; I thought I’d crunch some numbers instead, out of curiosity.

So I’ve been peering at my last couple of royalty statements, which cover the 2010 calendar year.  Unfortunately, due to the mysterious workings of multinational publishers, I can’t do the sums for my US sales at the moment, but as far as UK sales go, I can be pretty precise about how the ebook versions of the Godless World trilogy are doing.  Well … not precise, exactly, since – as any author will tell you – interpreting numbers on a royalty statement is an activity specifically designed to bring low the hubristic author feeling smug at possessing such a thing as a royalty statement in the first place.

Anyway, some crude numbers first, and we’ll throw out the unhelpful ones afterwards.  These are based on units, not income, by the way:

Winterbirth UK sales in 2010: books 96.2%, ebooks 3.8%

Bloodheir: books 77.5%, ebooks 22.5%

Fall of Thanes: books 97.9%, ebooks 2.1%

Or something like that.  Now, for the qualifications and dismissals.

What’s up with Bloodheir?, you ask.  Well, I worked out the figures for sales of hard copy books net of returns.  High street bookstores have the luxury of returning unsold copies to the publisher for a refund, and the publisher can set those returns against new sales when it comes to paying the author royalties, to arrive at a net figure.   Returns tend to come in lumps rather than being evenly distributed, depending on things like how long ago the particular edition of the book was published, whether a new edition has come out etc.

In this case, it so happens that one of my royalty statements in 2010 included quite a few returns of one version of Bloodheir, so because I was only working out the net movement of books, the overall number for paper Bloodheirs got depressed (as does an author seeing lots of returns on his or her royalty statement, of course.  Ha ha.).  Anyway, it makes the figures for Bloodheir definite outliers, so we might as well ignore them.

(Except … it does point out a significant feature of ebooks: there’s no such thing as returns.  A sale of an ebook that appears on my royalty statement is a real, irrevocable sale; a sale of a hard copy book is actually just the shipping of one to a bookstore – it may actually sell to a reader, it may get returned for a refund.  So that 22.5% figure for ebooks is accurate: if there happen to be a lot of returns in a given period, the proportional importance of ebook sales rises.)

The numbers for Fall of Thanes are also slightly distorted, but in the opposite direction.  Sales of any edition of a book are front-loaded, and the UK mass market paperback of Fall of Thanes came out in early 2010, so a lot of them were shipped to UK bookstores.  Nevertheless, ebooks still scrape over the 2% level in terms of units, which is pretty good going.

And so to Winterbirth, which has been out long enough that things like returns and new editions are not a factor.  Here, we’re looking at uncomplicated, long term figures for a book that’s been on the market for quite a while.  And what do you know?  At 3.8% of units, I’m almost bang on the 4% figure I quoted for ebooks in the UK market.  My figure for income from Winterbirth ebooks, as opposed to units, is actually slightly higher – I haven’t worked it out exactly, but it would be over 4%.

What can we conclude from this?  Perhaps that my readership is broadly representative of the wider reading population in terms of ebook uptake?  Certainly that it’s a complicated business for even an author to work out precise and meaningful numbers for this kind of thing (possible, just tediously time-consuming).  And although I can’t wrangle the numbers to the same degree for the US sales of these books, I do know that ebooks make up a slightly higher proportion of my sales in the US than in the UK, so I again conform to the bigger picture that the UK is lagging some way behind our Transatlantic pathfinding cousins in adopting the digital habit.

It’s what happens from here on out that’s really interesting, of course.  In 2010, if ebook sales of my books in the UK (and the US, for that matter) had been precisely zero, I would not have faced any financial hardship.  My guess is that, a year from now, such an outcome (not remotely likely, thankfully) would be a big enough drag on my income from the books to make me a bit glum, but not thoroughly despondent; and two, three years from now … who knows?  By then maybe zero ebook sales = zero future as a writer.  Maybe ebooks’ll be 20% plus of all my sales, maybe they’ll be racing away and looking at the 50% mark in their wing mirrors.  I’ll find out soon enough.

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