In theory, the more books are sold online the more sales should move to the long tail. Online bookstores have the advantage of “unlimited shelf space”. Nothing has to be left out of the assortment because of constraints on capital to stock inventory or room to hold it. Furthermore, as Konrath and Eisler pointed out in their extensive discussion of online versus print within the larger conversation about self- or publisher-issued, the differential impact of display when one title has a stack and another has a single spine-out copy is eliminated in the digital world.
But it doesn’t seem to be working out that way. While overall ebook sales in the US are still calculated in the 8-10% range of publishers’ revenues, so we’d reckon perhaps 10-12% of unit sales (ebooks generally, though not always, yield slightly less revenue per copy than print) or maybe even 15% for a publisher still drawing big print sales on books not available as or suitable for ebooks for whatever reason, we’re hearing frequent reports of big books selling 50% or more of their units as ebooks, particularly in the early weeks of their life.
So it would appear that ebook sales are even more concentrated across a smaller title band than print.
Furthermore, the occasional reports of enormous unit sales by the new crop of online author-stars like Amanda Hocking (coming next year to the bookstore that remains open nearest you) and John Locke also tend to support the idea that ebook sales are more concentrated, not less, than print sales. Unlimited shelf space and more uniform “display” don’t seem to be having the expected affect.
I recall a recent stat I believe came from Bowker, which tracks a large panel of book consumers, suggesting that bookstores still account for the largest single share, by far, of “book discovery.” What I recall hearing was that thirty percent of people report having learned about a book they bought from a bookstore display, much more than from any online source.
Of course, that’s certainly not true for Locke and Hocking and the books by Joe Konrath that aren’t in bookstores (although, as Joe points out, he does sell in print through Amazon’s CreateSpace print-on-demand program.) I haven’t seen anybody else talk about this subject, but Konrath also says that he gets a wildly disproportionate share of his overall sales from Kindle, much more than the 50-60% market share one hears anecdotally attributed to them by publishers. I know from private exchanges that Amazon themselves believe they do a better job than the other ebook formats for the self-published author in proportion to their size. We’d certainly want that confirmed by more authors than just Konrath, but if they’re doing that as a strategy, it’s a good one. A self-publishing author won’t need a lot of persuasion to not bother with other outlets if s/he can get 90% of the expected sale from one (which is what Konrath leads me to believe is the case for him, even though he is widely set up among the other platforms.)
Be that as it may, the fact is that none of the online retailers have figured out how to come close to what a bookstore can do in giving a consumer real choices-per-second. And the principal tool that online booksellers could be using to overcome the disadvantage of 2-dimensional presentation — customized choices for each online customer — is very little in evidence (except as top-of-the-page suggestions) in my personal shopping experience (which extends on a regular basis to Kindle, Nook, and Kobo and on an occasional basis to iBookstore and Google).
The impact of presence and display was understood by all in the bricks world. A book that is in the store in which a customer shops has a nearly infinitely larger chance of being purchased than a book not in the store. Sophisticated merchants like Barnes & Noble know how much sales lift to expect from a front table display. We all expect the book that it is faced-out on a shoulder-level shelf to sell better than the spined book you have to bend down to see.
For years, aggressive sales reps would move their books around. In the years before computerized inventory record keeping, it was incumbent on reps to count the books that were on the shelf to coax out a backlist reorder; that gave them ample opportunity to face books out, move books up, and point it out when a book was displayed in something less than the optimal subject section.
Now the paradigm has changed. The default front table is the choice of titles on the screen that comes up first when a store’s program is opened. That’s almost always that retailer’s bestsellers (and, as far as I can tell, it isn’t customized for me at any of these retailers; you or my wife would see the same default screen that I would.)
Then there are a bunch of pre-packaged choices — think of them as “tables” too — for NY Times bestsellers or (at Nook I noticed) “ebooks under $5” or under menu-driven choices of subject (they’re like “store sections.”) Of course, the earlier and more often a book is presented to a consumer in their online shopping experience, the more likely it is to sell.
The standard technique is that there are a set and limited number of titles a customer sees “at a click.” If you want to see more, you have to click again and (depending on connection speed) perhaps wait for more titles to load, which will usually be another 10 or 12 or maybe 25. If you shop the same sections repeatedly (and who doesn’t), most of what you see will be titles you’ve seen before and either bought or rejected. If you shop often, trying to find something new can be exhausting and ridiculously time-consuming.
Even the simplest assistance that would help avoid this duplication — such as displaying books in reverse order of publication (most recent first) instead of “by title” or “by author” — is not (or seldom) available.
Online shopping is great if you know exactly what you want (by title or author.) The online book shops can find you the most obscure book much more quickly than the average clerk in a brick store, and certainly faster than you’d find it yourself. Searching by title or author also almost always works extremely well.
But when it gets more complicated than that — perhaps you’re searching for “baseball history” or “Civil War economics” — the combination of inadequate publisher-provided metadata and insufficiently-mediated retailer choices will deliver you a menu of options that contains some titles so off base that a clerk would be fired for suggesting them.
The Lockes and Hockings of the world benefit from the same effect. They’re betsellers and every retailer has a button to deliver those, by genre and sometimes by pricing band. Getting bestseller status is so valuable that self-published authors seem to frequently employ the technique of lowering their price to 99 cents to get bestseller status and then popping back up to a more profitable price like $2.99 until the effect wears off.
So ebook purchasers make their choices from what is presented to them, which is a limited number of titles. Let’s not ever leap to the conclusion that there is something about ebooks or about ebook consumers that is biased to the most popular. It is merchandising practices which create that result, not consumer taste.