Big Numbers for Bestsellers Show E-Books Are Here to Stay


Former President George W. Bush's new book Decision Points was widely expected to be one of the biggest books of the fall, and based on its opening-day sales numbers -- more than 220,000 copies sold -- that's proving to be the case. But what's particularly eye-popping about those figures is not that Bush's book was Random House's best-selling non-fiction title in 16 years (when another former President, Bill Clinton, moved 400,000 copies of his autobiography My Life on its first day of sale) but that 50,000 of those sales came from e-books.

"It shows the digital market's rapid growth," spokesman David Drake of the Crown Publishing Group, the Random House division that published Decision Points, told the Associated Press. Considering that e-sales accounted for more than 20% of the total, "rapid growth" is an understatement.

Numbers released by the Association of American Publishers today show anew just how fast the e-book market is growing, with September e-sales up 188% (to $39.9 million) compared to 12 months ago. Industry newsletter Publishers Lunch suggests e-books now account for approximately 9.5% of total book sales for trade books - that is, fiction and non-fiction. Then there's Forrester Research, with its projection that e-books are inching ever closer to being a billion-dollar market.

Bestsellers Selling Better

What's really astonishing is how much e-books now account for total sales of top commercial titles. Legal thriller writer John Grisham's newest bestseller, The Confession, sold 160,000 hardcover copies in its opening week on sale, according to Nielsen Bookscan, which accounts for approximately 75% of total book sales. At first that appears to be way down from the 223,000 Bookscan-reported copies sold of Grisham's previous thriller, The Associate. But consider: The Confession also sold 70,000 copies in digital formats, as The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week.

The numbers jump out because Grisham's work wasn't even available in e-book formats until earlier this year. Now they account for about 30% of total sales for his newest books. Last summer it surprised many, myself included, when a bestseller like Laura Lippman's suspense thriller I'd Know You Anywheresold more e-books than hardcovers in its first week.

It's one thing when Amazon -- which only accounts for single-digit total market share for print titles but anywhere from 60% to 80% on the digital side -- says e-books outsell hardcovers. But when a publisher says the same thing for a given title, it's of real significance. I'd Know You Anywhere was the first (at least for publisher HarperCollins [NWS]) to skew more toward digital book sales, but it will hardly be the last.

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As e-book sales numbers continue to climb against declining overall figures, publishers must ask themselves some thorny questions about cannibalization effects. One solution -- delaying the e-book version by weeks or months -- has proven to be a nonstarter, and it's now all but expected that a book will be released simultaneously in print and digital editions. Finding the right price for the e-book becomes that much more critical, because readers ready to choose digital may be put off if the price exceeds that of a heavily discounted hardcover, or gives the illusion of being too high.

But e-books -- especially those priced according to the agency model, where retailers take a 30% cut from the digital price -- generate lower royalties for authors, and bestselling authors are increasingly making decisions about their future with a publisher based on what sort of digital terms they can secure.

E-books are obviously here to stay -- a fact that was made perfectly clear when The New York Times announced it would create an e-book bestseller list starting in early 2011. But also here to stay are the headaches -- and clearing those up will continue to be one of next year's biggest publishing stories.