The Ultimate eBook Industry Analysis [2019-2020]
In this article we
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
Share of consumer spending on indie eBooks:
USA eBook Sales Revenue 2017-2018:
Share of libraries offering eBooks:
Percent of adults who have read an eBook in past month:
This analysis was written late 2019, for use in projecting your 2020 plans. 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.
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, and being the creator/top mod of a publishing forum with over 60k views per month, 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 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 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.
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.
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 RanksThe #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 & Photography||189||18,446||21,505|
|Biographies & Memoirs||79||1,382||2,716|
|Business & Money||29||1,993||4,805|
|Comics, Manga & Graphic Novels||556||7,751||14,219|
|Computers & Technology||120||15,757||24,065|
|Cookbooks, Food & Wine||149||6,566||12,923|
|Crafts, Hobbies & Home||904||11,286||18,961|
|Education & Teaching||280||14,487||25,754|
|Engineering & Transportation||652||27,006||47,987|
|Health, Fitness & Dieting||99||2,184||4,472|
|Humor & Entertainment||36||3,305||6,273|
|Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender eBooks||75||2,279||4,125|
|Literature & Fiction||2||67||151|
|Mystery, Thriller & Suspense||1||161||381|
|Parenting & Relationships||350||8,212||14,185|
|Politics & Social Sciences||41||1,986||4,637|
|Religion & Spirituality||41||1,384||2,008|
|Science & Math||41||3,703||7,223|
|Science Fiction & Fantasy||6||356||672|
|Sports & Outdoors||95||12,132||20,870|
|Teen & Young Adult||26||745||1,644|
Non-Fiction Sales RanksThe 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 & Photography||225||10,660||21,243|
|Biographies & Memoirs||76||1,444||2,794|
|Business & Investing||29||1,906||4,472|
|Computers & Technology||133||15,236||24,169|
|Cooking, Food & Wine||184||6,565||12,534|
|Crafts, Hobbies & Home||953||11,645||19,880|
|Education & Reference||290||14,384||24,865|
|Engineering & Transportation||712||26,972||48,635|
|Health, Fitness & Dieting||98||1,905||4,324|
|Literary Criticism & Theory||2,012||38,818||68,782|
|Parenting & Relationships||350||8,212||14,185|
|Politics & Social Sciences||41||1,986||4,637|
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.
|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 (late October 2019) 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.