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Lies, Damn Lies, and Bowker’s Self-Publishing Stats

There’s a story I missed a few weeks back (I was busy in SF at the time) which seems to have come up again. And since a number of bloggers seem to be taking that story seriously rather than giving it the refutation it deserves, I figure it is worth debunking.

In late October Bowker, the US book market research firm, issued a press release with some new stats which claimed that 235,000 self-published titles had been put on the market this year (an earlier story referred to 211,269 titles produced last year). They based their figures  on the number of ISBNs registered to individuals, small publishers, and self-publishing services like Smashwords and Bookbaby as well as POD services like Lulu and CreateSpace.

That’s an interesting figure, if only for the small size. Considering that Amazon alone claims a couple hundred thousand exclusive self-published ebooks, the Bowker figure seem awfully questionable, doesn’t it?

Questionable, hah.

The figures released by Bowker are complete and utter bunk.

That 235k self-published books statistic leaves out nearly all the ebooks published via the single largest self-pub platform, Amazon KDP, and even the platforms which are included are not counted completely.

The Bowker figure isn’t incomplete so much as it is a failed attempt to attach a label to something which Bowker lacks the very basic capability to measure. They are not tied into all of the self-publishing platforms so they do not have any way to gather info on the number of titles being produced.

Even the connections Bowker does have to their data sources often result in less than complete info. For example, Bowker reported that Smashwords distributed an additional 40k titles in 2011, whereas based on year-end stats on the Smashwords blog the correct figure is over 60 thousand (the remaining titles were likely missed Bowker’s notice because they don’t have an ISBN).

Bowker’s figures should never have been made public and in no way, shape, or form should they be taken seriously. While a few of the stories which reported on these stats added an asterisk with a note that they were incomplete, I feel that failing to describe it as anything other than complete hogwash is factually incorrect and complete failure to report on the story in the proper context.

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Fbone November 27, 2012 um 6:33 pm

One needs more information.

What is considered a "title?" Is it a 40,000-word story? A 10,000-word? A 3,000-word ramble on Lulu that has no cover and took the author one hour to produce?
What is "self-published?" Is it a title that was first published in 1996 and again in 2010 and now re-published in 2012?
Where is Bowker receiving their data? Are they including Amazon by doing a simple estimate?

Nate Hoffelder November 29, 2012 um 10:43 am

You’d have to buy the report to find that out.

the rodent November 27, 2012 um 10:16 pm

They missed all the underground types who refuse to use ISBNs. I don’t trust their numbers.

Peter Turner June 7, 2013 um 12:12 pm

I don’t know about this one. It was widely reported that the data had to do with ISBNs and so couldn’t take into account eBook-only publications that are nearly always not associated with an ISBN.

Nate Hoffelder June 7, 2013 um 12:21 pm

Widely reported? I would disagree. I still occasionally see that ISBN data cited outside of the digital publishing sphere as valid info.

And the report is still for sale.

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[…] (and climbing), so their data captures only the broaded trends that are true on all platforms. Bowker (supplier of ISBNs) gives statistics on ebook sales that you should just disregard completely. Many […]

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[…] least Taleist and Smash are making well-intentioned attempts. When Bowker gives statistics on self-published titles, you should just disregard it completely. Many self-published authors […]

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