Physical Book Sales On The Rise, But It Doesn't Mean What You Think

Aric Mitchell

Book sales for physical books are certainly on the rise, according to recent numbers reported by Mic.

Referencing Nielsen BookScan data, writer Jon Levine notes that physical paper books are enjoying a bit of a renaissance with 571 million sold in 2015, up from 559 million in 2014 and 501 million in 2013.

This data flies in the face of what some were predicting from the indie author community, who believed that print books were on their way to becoming a niche market.

Naturally, those in the traditional publishing camp are touting their "I told you so's," but that may be a bit premature if you dig deeper into the report.

For starters, Nielsen BookScan has a very limited understanding of the eBook market.

They do not keep numbers on eBooks sold through independent and self-publishers, for instance, and while it's true that traditional publishers' eBooks have been on a slide -- more on that in a moment -- that is hardly indicative of the popularity of digital.

Before getting into why the latest numbers paint an incomplete picture, here's what Nielsen has to say about the "declining" eBook market.

"Coupled with surging book sales, e-readers have seen a corresponding and precipitous drop," Levine writes. "In 2014, Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster shaved 8.8% of profits from their margins in a loss widely attributed to disappointing sales of e-reader books."

— Jan Paul Grollé (@JanPaulGrolle) December 24, 2015

The site, which does a considerable amount more homework on the eBook market than Mic or Nielsen BookScan, acknowledges that the so-called "Big Five" publishers -- Penguin Random House, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, and Machete -- "have seen their collective share of the US ebook market collapse."

That collapse has included a 13 percent drop in Kindle books sold, a 14 percent drop in Kindle publisher gross revenue, and a 16 percent drop in net author earnings.

"During that same period in 2015, Amazon's overall ebook sales have continued to grow in both unit and dollar terms, fueled by a strong shift in consumer ebook purchasing behavior away from traditionally-published ebooks and toward indie-published- and Amazon-imprint-published ebooks," the site notes.

In other words, the indie and non-traditional publishing market continues to grow at a rapid pace, so citing a decline in eBooks without taking this market into consideration greatly misconstrues the ability to get an accurate reading on the true state of digital.

Furthermore, "non-traditionally published books now make up nearly 60 percent of all Kindle ebooks purchased in the U.S., and take in 40 percent of all consumer dollars spent on those ebooks."

With Barnes and Noble struggling to survive -- following the deaths of other national chain bookstores like Borders -- and Amazon now the undisputed king of book sales in the retail market, it's entirely possible AAP and Nielsen BookScan's numbers are based on either a minority or slim majority of the overall book sales market, yet these numbers are being passed off as all-encompassing.

What is particularly troubling about this for traditionally published authors is the fact that royalty rates are higher on eBook sales.

By keeping traditionally published eBook prices high -- example: The Girl in the Spider's Web Kindle edition, price set by publisher, is currently selling for $13.99 as a digital download -- publishers are driving some readers back toward print, which historically carries a very low royalty to the author.

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The problem with this is that many readers have gotten used to not paying that much money for a book -- digital or otherwise -- opting instead to buy used if in print.

This carries little to no benefit for an author.

What ends up happening? Traditional publishers make a larger amount on print sales, while only a select few authors do very well.

Meanwhile, publishers hold up book sales for digital through overpricing and lock in authors to keep them from self-publishing.

This effectively kills the traditional eBook market, which could be quite lucrative for mid-list authors, and many of those authors have no self-publishing recourse because they've signed a one-sided contract.

So yes, paper book sales are on the rise, but as the one major book chain left sputters and the indie market continues to grow, those increased numbers are likely a smaller part of a much bigger pie.

[Image via ShutterStock]