The Ultimate 2020 eBook Industry Analysis

The 2020 eBook Market Analysis

With a special focus on small and self publishers.

Rank kindle categories from highest to lowest sales – Analyze eBook readers by age, device, and other factors – Compare paperbacks vs eBooks – Check out total revenues – Break down eBook sales by country – Much more

The reason I decided to write this analysis are twofold – one, I think there is an enormous amount of misinformation as it relates to eBook data. The most popular source of eBook market share data comes from “Author Earnings Report” now known as “Bookstat.” This data is quoted all across the internet and by some of the most legitimate news sources in the world, but there’s one problem – the data itself is dodgy and seems totally unreliable, so dodgy I wrote an entire article about why you shouldn’t trust Author Earnings Report. The data out there besides the inaccurate data from AER seems just as esoteric, with countless info-graphs and forum posts backed up by no legitimate sources. So, since the purpose of this website is to help authors and publishers, and knowledge is power, I’m going to do my best here to give you some good information. This will be a really, really broad overview, a birds eye view of the entire eBook industry. Please note the deficiencies of this analysis – the major players in general, and specifically Amazon, do not share their sales data. At all. The following is analysing the data we do have, and I try to keep the extrapolation to a minimum. All references to Amazon market share is based on estimates.

Due to the proprietary nature of most eBook purchases, for example using a Kindle device to download from Amazon, eBook sales are vastly underreported here. So keep in mind the following eBook sales, generally speaking, can be considered much higher – in my personal opinion, the majority of the market. However, insofar as paperback trends would somewhat mirror eBook trends, and no honest data is bad data, I still recommend you read this analysis if your income depends on market trends. 

Since the market share of the various booksellers seems to be the most quoted aspect of the industry across the web, we’ll start there. What is the market share of Amazon vs all other eBook & paperback sellers, does it really make every other bookseller insignificant? What percentage of book sales are represented by iBooks, Google Play, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, KDP, etc? 

To answer these questions, I’m going to share some subjective experiences and then do a deep dive for some objective facts. With well over a thousand books published, most of them wide (that is to say, not exclusive to Amazon) and many friends in the publishing industry, plus running a publishing website I suppose, I have a very good grasp of which retailers actually get sales for authors, and in my experience most authors not enrolled in Kindle Unlimited have around 50% of their income coming in from Amazon, with the other 50% coming from other booksellers. After Amazon, it generally goes in order of Apple iBooks, Google Play Store, NookPress by Barnes & Noble, then smaller stores such as Kobo and Smashwords, and then finally the dozens of smaller retailers which you would usually only ever publish on via a book distributor that automatically submits and maintains your books for you, such as PublishDrive. (Check out my comparison of book & eBook distributors later)

Looking at the hard data, I was expecting to find most of it confirming my pre-existing expectations, but I was actually quite wrong in that respect. To my surprise Amazon really did seem to totally dominate in terms of eBook market share, and I think I realized why their sales are nearly all of the market yet most authors who are “wide” only get half their sales from Amazon. Knowing that most sales are through Amazon, most authors and publishers are likely to spend their advertising dollars to run promotions on Amazon only, because you get more bang for your buck with a higher sales rank leading to more visibility, and it’s easier to focus on the main bookseller vs 5 of them. So, those with books on all retailers find half of their “natural” sales from outside of Amazon, and those exclusive to Amazon get all of their sales from Amazon. The third group that have their books on all booksellers without being in KU are probably focusing more on money in their pocket than unit numbers, and if you have slim margins on Amazon (keep in mind it’s much harder to make a positive ROI on Amazon without your book being in Kindle Unlimited, as you’re losing what can often be the bulk of income there) then your percentage of income coming from Amazon might not be much better, or even worse if like many inexperienced authors you take a loss. I would speculate this explains the juxtaposition between Amazon being the vast majority of total sales, yet most authors with books on all platforms reporting diverse income streams, with the occasional author even making more on other individual booksellers than on Amazon. If Amazon has 80% of the market, so all the big competition is dumping their ad dollars and marketing efforts there, and many publishers are in Kindle Unlimited and only on Amazon, you might be better off focusing on the 20% of the market that isn’t Amazon, especially if you’re going to be light on actual advertising. If you are not planning to advertise, you might not do too well on Amazon, albeit, it is essential to care about Amazon.

Are eBooks or paperbacks more popular?

According to the largest and most reliable survey on this topic, a survey done by PEW Research, paperbacks are still the most popular way to read with eBooks coming in second and audiobooks third. Note that this survey is about reading, not sales, and not every book read is a newly purchased book. Many are old purchases, library copies or re-reads, so this doesn’t tell us most sales are paperback.

In terms of actual sales, it’s hard to tell what the real lay of the land is, because most of the major booksellers, including Amazon which is the largest bookseller in over a dozen countries, do not share this information. According to the Association Of American Publishers, paperback and hardcover sales are both up from last year and are continuing a long term upwards trend, and eBook sales are declining. Their data comes with the massive caveat, however, that their data is collected from their members (1,100 publishers, of which a minority are trade publishers), who are mostly educational or journalistic publishers, which leaves out the massive self-publishing industry among others. This data is also American-centric, as it is an American organization. Still, it’s a pretty interesting insight – most people would be expecting a decline of physical sales year on year, not an increase. 

Paperbacks vs eBooks
PEW Survey
AAP data paperbacks vs eBooks
Association of American Publishers

Still, I think anyone who looks at the age gap between eBook readers and paperback readers will agree that the future belongs to eBooks. The ways to consume eBooks will always be increasing and the options will be higher and higher quality, as well. From Statista:

What book categories have the highest sales?

The aforementioned AAP data is the most reliable as it relates to traditional publishers, and the data has shown increases in the adult book category, in addition to increases in the young adult category and an incredible +8% increase in sales for religious presses. There were also declines in educational and scholarly presses, leaving their mostly-traditional publishers with an overall revenue decrease of 1.5% last year, compared to the year before. It’s interesting to note that there was an 8% increase in eBook sales in the young adult category in a single year. However, I find this data relatively useless. It’s too broad, it’s too biased, and even if it’s less than a year old that is still outdated. So I’m going to use a bit more old school method – Amazon is the largest bookseller in most English speaking countries, and although they never hand out their data, there is a special piece of information they include in every book listing – the book’s sales ranking, or it’s relative rank in the entire store. For example, a sales rank of 10,000 means it is the 10,000th most sold book in the store at that time. So by checking a book’s sales rankings, you can see how it performs over time. Amazon has great Top 100 categories for nearly every category and sub-category. You can see where I’m going with this – by comparing the sales ranks of the #1, #50 & #100 best-selling book in each category, you get an amazing snapshot of the relative popularity of each category, that will be almost by definition more accurate and up to date than any other method, because it’s based on real sales, right now. The only downside to this method is it doesn’t account for the varying “weight” of the top 100, or the percentage of sales that the top 100 has in each category, but since the sales ranks are storewide that doesn’t really diminish the data. I think this is a small sacrifice in accuracy compared to the only alternative, which is essentially polling a certain group of publishers and having your results extremely skewed and biased towards the group you’re monitoring. This method compares every bookseller on Amazon, that is to say, every bookseller in the English speaking world. I will focus on the major categories, and update the results below regularly. 

Fiction Sales Ranks

The #1, #50 & #100 sales ranks of the books in the top 100 most popular eBooks on Amazon, for each category. Click header to sort.
Category#1 Sales Rank#50 Sales Rank#100 Sales Rank
Arts & Photography18918,44621,505
Biographies & Memoirs791,3822,716
Business & Money291,993 4,805
Children's eBooks247842,004
Comics, Manga & Graphic Novels5567,75114,219
Computers & Technology12015,75724,065
Cookbooks, Food & Wine1496,56612,923
Crafts, Hobbies & Home90411,28618,961
Education & Teaching28014,48725,754
Engineering & Transportation652 27,00647,987
Foreign Languages63115,126 29,679
Health, Fitness & Dieting992,1844,472
Humor & Entertainment363,3056,273
Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender eBooks752,2794,125
Literature & Fiction267151
Medical eBooks58210,45120,010
Mystery, Thriller & Suspense1161381
Parenting & Relationships3508,21214,185
Politics & Social Sciences411,9864,637
Religion & Spirituality41 1,3842,008
Science & Math413,7037,223
Science Fiction & Fantasy6356672
Sports & Outdoors9512,13220,870
Teen & Young Adult267451,644

Non-Fiction Sales Ranks

The sales ranks for the #1, #50, and #100 books in each non-fiction categories Amazon Top 100 list. Click header to sort.
Category or Subcategory#1 Sales Rank#50 Sales Rank#100 Sales Rank
Arts & Photography22510,66021,243
Biographies & Memoirs761,4442,794
Business & Investing291,9064,472
Children's Nonfiction2576,05813,779
Computers & Technology13315,23624,169
Cooking, Food & Wine1846,56512,534
Crafts, Hobbies & Home95311,64519,880
Education & Reference29014,38424,865
Engineering & Transportation71226,97248,635
Health, Fitness & Dieting981,9054,324
Literary Criticism & Theory2,01238,81868,782
Medical eBooks58210,45120,010
Parenting & Relationships3508,21214,185
Politics & Social Sciences411,9864,637

Now we’re actually getting somewhere. By sorting the tables you’ll get an amazing overview of sales in each kindle category, and to me the 100th book is actually the best indicator of the niche in general, although of course all the spots are useful to look at. Statista also has a graph of what they feel to be the most popular categories based on their research. Note they don’t include the time span as far as I can tell, but a google of ‘eBook statista’ shows all kinds of interesting information like this. They do charge a subscription fee. 

What countries read the most eBooks?

As with most new technology being adopted (and eBooks still are relatively new) the United States leads the pack by far in terms of total eBooks sold. A fairly wealthy country with a large amount of readers, the USA dwarves all others. I was surprised to find out Japan is the #2 country in terms of eBook sales, with China 3rd and the United Kingdom 4th. Below is a graph for 2018, again from Statista, showing eBook sales for most countries with the darker regions buying more and the lighter regions buying less eBooks. Here are some of the major countries, and their eBook sales.

CountrySales (millions)
Ivory Coast6
New Zealand37
Saudia Arabia58
South Korea554
United Kingdom (UK)820
United States (USA)5,487

That’s it for now! I hope this article showed you the lay of the land so to speak, understanding data like this is the first step to being able to make good decisions in a competitive industry.

Please note: This article is fresh and I will be adding to it regularly over the next few months, until it is more accurate and fleshed out. Until then, I hope it was of use to you.

Leave a question or comment below.

8 thoughts on “The Ultimate 2020 eBook Industry Analysis”

  1. Seems like when you try to sort through top 100 rank, it sorts only according to the first digit, so it will show something like #1,#10,#15,#150, #1500, #2, #25, #200, #3, #35, #300, etc. I think that’s because you left the “#” symbol in the table so it sorts it as if it were a string of characters rather than a number.

  2. Hi, Max, this is a very insightful report. Especially the total e-book sales data by country. Do you know if there is data on Amazon’s e-book share in those sales by country?

    • Not from Amazon, they share little/no information. Some data can be divined, for example with the tools in the keyword section, but it’s not exact.

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