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Bowker Reports Self-published eBooks Now 12% of eBook Sales – I’m Not So Sure

Bowker LogoThe Bookseller is reporting today that Bowker has new info on how well self-pub ebooks are doing in the UK:

Self-published titles make up 12% of all e-book sales, according to new findings from Bowker Market Research.

The popularity of self-published titles rises when looking at certain categories, with the self-published share of e-book volume sales more than 20% in areas such as crime, science fiction and fantasy, romance and humour.

That’s an interesting claim, but I’m going to have to call shenanigans. I don’t trust Bowker’s source:

The research is based on Bowker’s regular Books & Consumers survey, which holds monthly interviews with book buyers, questioning around 3,000 consumers each month. The findings were unveiled today (June 7th) at The Literary Consultancy Conference by Steve Bohmer, UK research director at Bowker.

The thing is, I don’t think consumers will be able to answer that question with a high degree of accuracy. It’s on the same level as asking a reader how many ebooks they are buying from which publishers; it’s a question that I doubt the average reader can answer. I know I cannot.

Sure, I could investigate and find an answer but I really would have to investigate first. This is something I could not answer off of the top of my head.

Update: Bowker did do a line by line investigation of consumers' purchases (link).

But even if Bowker really did do a line-by-line investigation of consumers' buying habits, how do we know that they properly cataloged all the ebooks purchased?

There’s a growing number of indie digital publishers out there that are using much the same tools as self-publishing authors. (And an FYI: when I write self-pub I usually have these indie digital publishers in mind as well.) Don’t you wonder how Bowker is factoring in those indies? Arguably they should be included in self-pub (it’s a poor label, I know) but the indies are also difficult to tell from legacy publishers.

And that’s not my only issue with this report.

Frankly, I don’t trust Bowker to be able to identify what they cannot accurately measure. Ever since they released a report last October that took incomplete and imperfect data and drew conclusions about the number of self-published books in the US market, I have taken everything Bowker released with a grain of salt.

So what’s the real number? I don’t know. So far as I can tell this isn’t a question that has an accurate statistical answer. What data we do have to answer it is incomplete at best as well as difficult to interpret.

P.S. If someone at Bowker would care to offer more context, I’m all ears. But as it stands this report is not worth the electrons it’s written on.

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fjtorres June 7, 2013 um 12:26 pm

Your point that Bowker’s methodology/terminology is flawed is valid. Asking consumers is going to flounder on the fact that consumers don’t generally care who the publisher is and that many self pubbers "hide" behind a label. Often the publisher of record is Amazon Digital Services so consumers might think Amazon is the publisher and not the author.

The obvious answer is to go by what the retailers willing to talk tell us:
B&N has been bragging that 25% of their sales are indie/self-pub.
Amazon is going to be higher, say 30%, and Kobo is reporting their Writing Life self-pubs are 10%. Add in their share of Smashwords and it could easily double.
Factoring in the retailers' market share, I’d peg the number at 25%, minimum. It might even be as high as 30%.

And, again, in the romance and SF&F genres, it is going to be higher.
I would not be surprised to hear that romance ebook *unit* sales are 50% indie.

Dan Meadows June 7, 2013 um 12:48 pm

These are UK numbers, too, aren’t they? Are we still operating under the assumption that the UK is 1.5-2 years behind us in ebook market? That could explain the smaller numbers a bit. I don’t trust any of these numbers coming out based on surveys – be it bookstores, publishers or readers – or ISBN data. They all seem uniformly predisposed to under-report independent sales.

Thad McIlroy June 10, 2013 um 2:40 am

It’s always wise to be skeptical but this report is so very different that the fall report based on ISBNs. To say that the fall report was inaccurate and therefore this one is also seems like faulty logic.

Still I don’t think any agency has the capacity to accurately measure what percentage of ebook sales are attributable to self publishers. Without Amazon’s cooperation it cannot be done (and we all know that Amazon will not be cooperating).

More important, from my perspective, is examining our motives. Let’s double the number and consider the implications: 25% of all ebook sales are from self-published authors. Let’s diminish is by about half: 5% of all ebook sales are from self-published authors. Do either of these scenarios actually inform us?

Perhaps it’s because we have such a hard time getting good numbers (mainly because of Amazon’s reticence) but the publishing industry seems obsessed with data, mainly just to be obsessed.

I think there’s far too scarce a conversation about the broader picture of what data really means to authors and publishers. What are we fighting for?

Nate Hoffelder June 10, 2013 um 11:00 am

I’ve just gotten a few new details about where this data came from:

The Books & Consumers survey records the ISBN, title and author (or at least some of these elements) for each book purchased in the month prior to survey by our representative sample of c3000 buyers per month. The data are matched against bibliographic databases to generate information about the publisher, and this helps us identify some instances where the book is self-published. In addition, we painstakingly check through the list of purchases which we can’t match bibliographically to identify other purchases which are self-published. It is not an exact science, of course, but when we look at the data against price, discover, choice factors, etc it is clear that we are getting a pretty good handle on this growing market. So, no evidence that consumers are wise to whether they are buying a self-published author or not, although that’s an interesting question we are sure to explore in more detail going forward!

So Bowker did interview UK consumers and did investigate each purchase. That’s good, but I’m still not convinced that self-pub can be identified so easily. It also looks to me like Bowker might not be counting indie digital pub in that 12%.

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