A post in UK book trade journal of record The Bookseller has shared some fascinating stats on Big Five ebook sales, also picked up by The Passive Voice. The exact source isn’t clear, although Nielsen BookScan is quoted as one data point. But even if the breakdown comes from The Bookseller‘s own UK market research, the trends are illuminating. Although “we can without a shadow of a doubt say that e-book volume slid for the Big Five publishers for the first time since the digital age began, collectively down 2.4% to 47.9 million units last year,” there’s a fillip in the shape of a big boost “in terms of value growth.”
We probably all know by now the arguments over how Big Five reimposition of agency pricing has depressed their digital market share. Judging by the 2015 stats in The Bookseller report, sales volumes weren’t exactly hit hard, though, and some publishers fared much worse than others. Pan Macmillan’s sales dropped 7.7 percent year-on-year, but Penguin Random House only saw a 0.4 percent dip. Furthermore, 2015 saw the exceptionally bad trading conditions bemoaned by Tim Cook in the recent Apple results report. Given those, a 2.4 percent dip could all be down to adverse economic trends, rather than industry change or book pricing.
However, The Bookseller does conclude – based on its own in-house calculations – that, in value delivered to the Big Five, for UK ebook sales, “2015 was a stonking year… Maybe one of the best ever.” Those calculations arrive at a £381.5 million ($552 million) 2015 total for Big Five UK ebook sales value, in the context of an overall 7.1 percent year-on-year in value for all Big Five UK book sales, ebooks accounting for around 20 percent of the take.
You can follow further interesting discussion on this whole topic in the comments section of The Passive Voice. Most commentators take issue with The Bookseller‘s smug trumpeting of an ebook sales decline, however minimal, as somehow vindicating its traditionalist stance rather than damning the Big Five for reactionary incompetence. But even if the data and the number-crunching are both very slightly questionable, the broad conclusions make sense and bear out what other recent reports, such as the latest AAP StatShot, indicate. There’s a marginal decline in ebook sales, which could be attributable to the economic cycle. And unfortunately, there’s no immediate pricing pressure on the Big Five to reassess their agency models. With ebooks delivering good value, they can afford, alas, to keep gouging consumers with ebook prices senselessly above print equivalents. Shop wisely, people.