Digital Book World unveiled its new ebook bestseller lists this morning. They put this effort together — I program the annual January conference for them; this work has almost nothing to do with me (although I’m over-generously credited with having provided “guidance”) — over the past couple of months working with Dan Lubart. Lubart owns Iobyte, which had been tracking ebook sales and rankings for over a year before he took a job at HarperCollins late in 2011.
It occurred to me a long time ago that ebook bestseller lists had a core flaw. Because many print book lists were sorted by format (hardcover, trade paperback, mass-market paperback) — USA Today’s is an exception — they were effectively “tiered” by price. But ebook pricing, famously a point of contention as publishers tried to maintain higher prices in the marketplace through agency agreements, varied widely and that variance was obfuscated in the lists.
So when four self-published authors land on the NY Times list, the stories saying so don’t even mention the big price advantage working at the back of two of them, whose books were 99 cents. All the more credit, of course, to Colleen Hoover, who scored with two books on the list priced at $7.99. She has since signed a contract with Simon & Schuster. (Bella Andre, who has books at $4.99 on the list, spoke for us at Digital Book World III last January.)
In the absence of prompt unit sales reporting by accounts, which doesn’t seem to be on the horizon any time soon, the only way timely lists of this kind can be assembled is with a certain amount of informed guesswork. (You can collect unit sales numbers through the publishers, but only with a very serious time lag.) The Lubart-DBW team can see the sales ranks of all these books on the various ebook vendor sites, but they have to take educated guesses about how to factor in the different rankings (power law curve; sales drop sharply as ranks drop) and different account sales power (number five on Amazon almost certainly sells more than number five anywhere else).
So nobody’s list can be above dispute.
DBW’s methods, which I have discussed with them and which Lubart lays out in a post, are objective and reasonable and constantly under review. So their lists deserve to be treated with respect and analyzing what they tell us is worth the effort.
First of all, there is a striking lack of self-published material represented. There is not one self-published ebook in the overall Top 25 and only two appear at all, both on the lowest price band (from zero to $2.99).
Secondly, there is a publisher I hadn’t heard of that shows up with two titles in the cheapest band and with one in the next one up ($3-$7.99). That’s “Entangled Publishing”, which has an interesting business model that Jane Litte talked about on her blog a couple of months ago. They’re also intriguing because one of their hits, a book called “The Marriage Bargain”, was on the Hollywood radar screen when I was out there talking to people two months ago. Now they know there’s a new publisher to watch.
The Top 25 break down by publisher this way: Random House 10, Penguin 5, Scholastic 3 (we know what those are), Simon & Schuster 2, Hachette 2, Macmillan 1, HarperCollins 1, Soho 1. (Soho is an independent New York-based publisher.)
But what is even more interesting to me, and which defies the notion that the big publishers aren’t aware of the value of lower pricing, is how the list breaks down in the lowest price tier (they list 10 titles): Random House 2, Self-published 2, Entangled 2, HarperCollins 2, Soho 1, Penguin 1.
Six of the top 10 titles under $3 belong to the Big Six.
The Big Six plus Scholastic have seven of the top 10 in the $3-$7.99 price band as well.
Above $8, only Kensington breaks the monopoly of the Big Six, with one title.
So it would appear that the notion that The Big Six are hurting authors by pricing their books too high is not borne out by this data.
It will be particularly interesting to watch how the lists change in the various price bands later this Fall if the DoJ settlement is approved and the retailers are free to set prices on the output of half of the Big Six.
Barnes & Noble announced today that they’re going into the UK with partners they will name later. This was a move the industry has been waiting for. The expectations that B&N would team with Waterstone’s were dashed by the surprise deal the British retailer announced with Amazon earlier in the summer.
This is a very important move by B&N. They absolutely have to get global to be a long-run competitor in ebooks, and Britain is certainly the logical place to start.
I see two big issues for them. The obvious one is that they probably won’t be partnering with a signficant book retailer since Waterstone’s has their Amazon partnership and WH Smiths is partnered with Kobo. So they might get a lot of consumer reach — through one of the supermarket chains, say — but the core book market won’t be instantly accessible.
The less obvious one is that dedicated ebook readers, which is where Nook is strongest, particularly with the Glow, are losing ground to a plethora of tablets, led by iPad, of course, which is rumored to have a new smaller version coming. There is a reasonable theory that the eink device has “peaked” and that multi-function tablets will be the point of entry to the ebook market for new consumers in the future.
In fact, that theory is one we’re discussing at our Pub Launch Frankfurt conference on October 8, as Peter Hildick-Smith applies his Codex Group research data to the question of how digital markets will shape up in countries beyond the US and the UK in the future. At the same event, B&N executives Jim Hilt and Theresa Horner will appear as well.