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Bloggers and journalists have been going wild over the past week or so as a result of a New York Times article claiming that printed book sales were reviving while the sales of e-books declined. This was picked up and repeated time and again (e.g., http://libnews.jweinheimer.net/?p=59002) in spite of one or two bloggers noting that the article was flawed because (mainly deriving their comments from Stratechery.com) it was based on only the returns from the Association of American Publishers. The AAP represents all the major publishers but, as in Sweden, where many small publishers do not belong to the Swedish Publishers’ Association, there are probably hundreds of small publishers in the USA that do not belong to the AAP and probably do not belong to any such association, although there is the Independent Book Publishers Association, which, as far as I can determine, makes no sales statistics available, and there are many regional associations in the USA whose members probably do not belong to the AAP. The result is that, while the data may represent the majority of book sales in the USA, they by no means represent all sales and we have no idea how many e-books are produced by publishers that are not members of the AAP. Perhaps most significantly, the AAP’s data cannot reveal how many independently-published, or ‘self-published’, e-books are being sold.


As a counterbalance to the New York Times article, the Author Earnings blog pointed out that Amazon’s sales figures present a different picture as shown in the figure. AAP-member e-book sales from Amazon are definitely down but the drop is compensated for by the increase in the share of what the blog calls the ‘shadow industry’ of independently-published e-books without an ISBN (which makes them invisible to the collectors of industry statistics such as Nielsen). What appears to be happening is not that readers are giving up e-books as the New York Times suggested, but that they are rejecting the higher-priced AAP e-books in favour of the lower-priced independently published books.

A number of the bloggers picking up on the New York Times article have made the rather silly statement that it reveals people switching back to printed books from e-books, as though anyone had ever ‘switched’ the other way. People who read are likely to be reading both printed books and e-books and, indeed, our research in Sweden shows that people who don’t read printed books don’t read e-books. In other words you have to be a ‘reader’ first, and you choose the format you read according to circumstances. I read e-books when I’m travelling, to avoid having to carry around a load of paper-backed books and when I’m at home, I switch from one to the other according to what’s available.