Lies, Damn Lies, and Book People Statistics

Lies, Damn Lies, and Book People Statistics DeBunking ebook sales

When Mark Twain popularized the phrase "lies, damn lies, and statistics", he was referring to the way that one can selectively report statistics and tell just about any narrative desired.

We see this everyday in the mainstream media when they report on AAP revenue stats (to name just one example), and even in the trade press. Remember when Jim Milliot claimed that Amazon would soon be the fifth-largest bookseller in the US? Jim selectively reported publicly available stats in order to tell the story he wanted (one that wasn't even close to being true).

Statistics are used all the time to mislead, but some stats don't need any help.

There are statistics that mislead you, confuse the issue, or distract attention all on their own. For example, every month Publishers Weekly reports the US Census Bureau's estimated bookstore revenues. You might think those stats reflect book sales, except that the estimates include more than just book sales (and they are about a third as large as they were a decade ago).

Statistics can mislead all on their own, if you're not careful, and that includes stats frequently thrown around in debates about the book publishing industry.

For example, just the other day a reader made an off hand mention of the stat:

Print is still 75% of all publishing sales, including indie sales. It’s holding steady, and may be increasing.

While this stat is mostly true (let's not nitpick the specific value) it is still misleading and distracting.

This statistic misleads you into only looking at book sales, and it distracts you from seeing industry trends. For example, textbook sales aren't going digital because they are evaporating, and being replaced by free OER downloads. Nonfiction print sales are being cannibalized not by ebooks but by freely available info on the internet as well as videos and webinars.

This stat also misleads you into thinking that it applies equally well in all categories and genres, when each category is unique, and some have actually gone overwhelmingly digital.

 

This stat is a doubly whammy; it keeps you from seeing both the big picture and the specific details. That's why one should always take care when using it.

That rule applies to all statistics, really, and it's worth keeping in mind when numbers start flying around.

 

About Nate Hoffelder (10944 Articles)
Nate Hoffelder is the founder and editor of The Digital Reader:"I've been into reading ebooks since forever, but I only got my first ereader in July 2007. Everything quickly spiraled out of control from there. Before I started this blog in January 2010 I covered ebooks, ebook readers, and digital publishing for about 2 years as a part of MobileRead Forums. It's a great community, and being a member is a joy. But I thought I could make something out of how I covered the news for MobileRead, so I started this blog."

8 Comments on Lies, Damn Lies, and Book People Statistics

  1. Its funny that I’ve seen nothing leak from Amazon about their ebook sales leak out. They pretty much are the market for ebooks.

    Publishers want to stick their heads in the sand and go back in time to before the internet and mobile devices, and Amazon. The current trend I think is for printed books sold by Amazon and the top bestsellers sold by supermarkets. I don’t believe a word they say about the ebook market, especially since they are controlling sales using price.

    What I’d like to hear about is what authors think about the market for ebooks? At least one I am aware of, Dr. Jerry Pournelle, who recently passed away, retained ebook rights for the older books he wrote before ebooks became a thing. He personally sold them on Amazon, and he claimed they did very well. Outside the few best-selling fiction writers the publishers covet, how do other authors see ebook sales?

  2. Mark Williams Int. // 22 September, 2017 at 3:14 am // Reply

    The problem with misleading stats is that it works both ways.

    You say,

    “This stat also misleads you into thinking that it applies equally well in all categories and genres, when each category is unique, and some have actually gone overwhelmingly digital.”

    You reference Data Guy’s assertion that 89% of romance unit sales are digital, but this in turn doesn’t tell the whole story.

    These romance unit sales include an unknown number of 10-20 page dinosaur erotica, pseudo-incest erotica and animal sex, etc, etc,that have no comparable existence in the print world but thrive in the subscription market (animal sex not so much with KU, where some standards are still upheld).

    These are effectively “new” sales that are probably not cannibalising mainstream romance print sales or b&m bookstore sales, but rather are tapping into a previously unreachable readership.

    The other, smaller, factor here is that while US print sales are just that – print sales in the US – ebooks sales on Amazon US are not solely US sales but also sales from all the non-Kindle countries where Amazon allows ebook downloads.

    Finally, looking at the print-digital divide, it’s important to bear in mind how many indies do not bother with print, or are unable to make any headway with print sales, not because of the lack of interest from readers per se but because indie POD list prices are considerably higher than print titles of mainstream publishers.

    • “the non-Kindle countries where Amazon allows ebook downloads.” Which countries are they? They can buy epub? I’m curious

    • So … you think “dinosaur erotica” is a big-seller, do you?

      No wonder Donald Trump won … the nation is flooded with incoherent idiots. ‘Never mind all that “sciency stuff” of sales models and whatnot because there’s dinosaur erotica so I don’t believe it’.

      And, yep, the only reason that indie e-books are bought is that their printed equivalents are too expensive … it *couldn’t* be because of digital advantages. No sir, it’s the cost.

      Whew.

      • So … you think “dinosaur erotica” is a big-seller, do you?

        He never wrote that. You’re trying to put words in his mouth so that you can claim a gotcha and do your little victory dance.

        You’re shooting blanks.

  3. ” , , ,allows ebook downloads.” is confused.

    I think ‘allows sales’ is meant.

    Anyone, unless they reside in a “Kindle-Free” country, Egypt say, can register and buy ebooks from Amazon.com.

    The Amazon.com smart-host will show only books that are licensed to be sold in their locale and will show localised prices converted to $US including tax.

    If the locality has its own Kindle store, eg Amazon.de, Amazon.co.uk, residents can use that if they wish and pay in a local currency.

    Non-US sales are probably (Data-guy has estimates) fairly small since if they were large, Amazon would have opened a local store.

    Hence little effect on top-10 and estimates of total sales.

  4. Mark Williams Int. // 24 September, 2017 at 3:09 am // Reply

    “Anyone, unless they reside in a “Kindle-Free” country, Egypt say, can register and buy ebooks from Amazon.com.”

    Incorrect. I live in The Gambia, West Africa. Logged into my UK account I can see the Kindle store and buy ebooks. Logged out of my ex-pat Kindle UK site and being treated as a Gambian would be the Kindle store simply is not viewable.

    All my ebooks are on Amazon with the world rights box ticked, including the Gambia. Most indies will be doing the same thing. But if I go to Amazon.com and search for my books the ONLY results that will show are for audio and print.

    It’s the same store around much of the world – most of Africa and Asia cannot buy from the Kindle store.

    The same of course is true for Apple and Google Play, although Google Play has two localised stores in Africa and several in Asia.

    “Non-US sales are probably (Data-guy has estimates) fairly small since if they were large, Amazon would have opened a local store.”

    Chicken and egg logic. I cannot imagine Amazon opened its French, Italian, Mexican or Brazilian Kindle stores based on how many people were buying from the US store. Amazon makes its Kindle store decisions based on wider economic considerations including how much localised content they can pull in to make the option of interest to consumers, and also the bigger picture of future Amazon store expansion opportunities in those countries.

    Until the Kindle stores were opened in France, Mexico, Brazil, etc, those countries were being hit with the $2 whispernet surcharge – even for free books – so little chance the sales from those countries accurately reflected likely interest before the localised Kindle stores opened..

    @BDR, Peter Winkler has already pointed out you are responding to what was not said. Ditto for print.

    I said, “many indies do not bother with print, or are unable to make any headway with print sales, not because of the lack of interest from readers per se but because indie POD list prices are considerably higher than print titles of mainstream publishers,” Which you thoughtfully rewrote to suit your own agenda as “the only reason that indie e-books are bought is that their printed equivalents are too expensive.”

    But thanks for the effort. It brought a smile to my face, as did the suggestion I might be a Trump voter.

    “No wonder Donald Trump won … the nation is flooded with incoherent idiots.”

    Your words not mine. As a British ex-pat living in West Africa with no right to vote in the USA I cannot count myself as responsible for Trump’s election, nor would I label those whose political preferences differ from mine as “incoherent idiots.”

    @Farhirsch – yes, we can buy epubs from Kobo pretty much anywhere in the world. Kobo has a good number of localised stores, but elsewhere only from the Kobo US site at US prices (if we have a credit/debit card).

  5. I’m that reader, and (surprise!) I agree with you. The stat is too general, and can be misleading. I also agree that the exact number doesn’t matter much.

    My sole point in using it is that print isn’t **universally** dead. IN other words, there are some parts of the market (and that they’re large enough) where some traditional publishers and some non-fiction indies are still doing well with it — for now.

    I don’t think you’d disagree.

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