It’s been a good year for print and a great year for audiobooks. Ebooks, not so much. Or so we might think, reading the trade reports that take great delight in reporting every slip in mainstream ebook sales, while glorifying every rise in audiobook sales.
No matter that we all know the key reason mainstream ebook sales are in decline is because publishers (understandably) want to protect their print investment so raised ebook prices.
No matter that ebook revenues still outperform audiobook evenues by a long way.
No matter that by unit sales volume ebooks leave audiobooks in the dust.
No matter that the number-crunchers, who tell us how well ebooks and audiobooks are selling, do not factor in digital downloads at libraries (211 million ebook downloads through OverDrive alone in 2019).
And no matter that, with the exception of Bookstat, which is guesswork rather than real statistics, they do not factor in ebook sales and downloads via the self-publishing community (indie authors). (Bookstat also totally ignores digital library downloads.)
Now you might be thinking that self-published ebooks can’t amount to much, so who cares? But consider this:
In 2019 Amazon paid out over $300 million in royalties just to KDP authors (mostly self-published, a few small presses thrown in) participating in the Kindle Unlimited (KU) ebook subscription service.
The pay-out comes in the form of a monthly pot, shared amongst every KDP author/publisher who had a title downloaded through the service, the exact amount determined by the number of pages read. the rate per page varies each month, but in December was $0.004664.
That may sound ridiculously small, but an example 300 page book, if fully parsed, would earn $1.40. At which point factor in that the reader might get through many more books during the month than they would do if they were paying a la carte prices.
Here’s how the pot pay-out numbers broke down in 2019:
January: $24.7 million
February: $23.5 million
March: $24 million
April: $24.1 million
May: $24.6 million
June: $24.9 million
July: $25.6 million
August: $25.8 million
September: $25.9 million
October: $26 million
November: $26.1 million
December: $26.2 million
That’s a grand total of $301.4 million paid out in 2019 for Kindle Unlimited downloads from mostly self-published titles.
Only Amazon knows exactly how that was shared, and exactly how much went to indie authors and how much to participating small presses, but what’s important here is to remember that this is just Kindle Unlimited downloads from KDP titles and does not include APub titles which are also fed into Kindle Unlimited, nor the handful of big name authors that are in Kindle Unlimited. For example the Harry Potter ebooks are available in Kindle Unlimited.
These received standard royalty payments as if regular sales.
We don’t know how many downloads in total Kindle Unlimited sees each month, but we can safely assume the Harry Potter books and APub titles are the most popular, either from brand recognition or internal promotion by Amazon.
But whatever the payout for those titles, it is on top of, and separate from, the Kindle Unlimited pot payout to KDP authors.
Likewise we can only guess at how many ebooks are sold a la carte by indie authors, and therefore pass uncounted both as units and as revenue by those who purport to tell us the health of the ebook market.
This of course is just for sales and downloads on Amazon.
While some commentators delight in the downward spiral of Barnes & Noble’s Nook, and lightly dismiss Apple, Kobo and Google Play, and the rival subscription services like Scribd (one million subscribers), when we start to add these numbers up, both for mainstream and indie published sales, it’s easy to see that the narrative that ebooks are in terminal decline has no real substance.
Rather – and this is where it becomes understandably difficult for mainstream players to face reality – by pushing up ebook prices for sound short-term reasons, publishers left an open goal for indie authors in and outside Kindle Unlimited to offer less expensive fare, allowing self-published authors to own market share previously the domain of Big Pub.
That’s not something you’ll see discussed out loud when the publishing fraternity’s reps talk about falling ebook sales. Better to come up with sound-bite excuses like “screen fatigue” and “the attention economy” and blame Netflix.
But we should, at the start of this new decade, pause for thought and ask if that $300 million in Amazon cash going to indie authors each year is somehow new money from new readers, or if that money – and remember this is just royalties, not gross revenue – is money that might instead have been going to mainstream publishers had they not raised ebook prices.
Because one thing’s for certain: when we are constantly told ebook sales are in decline, what they mean is, mainstream publishers’ ebook sales are in decline.
As the Kindle Unlimited pot payouts, and as the OverDrive numbers show, ebooks seem to be as popular as ever.