AuthorEarnings: ISBN On Ice!

Image - iStockphoto: marungaman
Image – iStockphoto: marungaman

Everything’s Coming Up Indie. Right? 

As slippery as the business of publishing-industry statistics is, the author Hugh Howey and his unnamed associate referred to as Data Guy have now given us a year of reports.

This is a good thing. Despite Howey’s detractors and some of their misgivings, the AuthorEarnings series of interpretive essays have created a viable second opinion, where once the industry! the industry! had only its own interpretations of its size, its scope, and its progress based on market action reported by its players. This body of work represents the first systematically prepared and consistently presented alternative views we’ve had.

Author EarningsAnd in the new précis just released this week — the January 2015 Author Earnings Report — Howey does what any good purveyor of controversial material does: he slides the sizzle out onto the ice first.

As the lights go down, Howey has six fine drum-rolling flashes to offer as an executive summary. I quote him:

  1. AuthorEarnings reports analyze detailed title-level data on 33% of all daily ebook sales in the U.S..
  2. 30% of the ebooks being purchased in the U.S.. do not use ISBN numbers and are invisible to the industry’s official market surveys and reports; all the ISBN-based estimates of market share reported by Bowker, AAP, BISG, and Nielsen are wildly wrong.
  3. 33% of all paid ebook unit sales on are indie self-published ebooks.
  4. 20% of all consumer dollars spent on ebooks on are being spent on indie self-published ebooks.
  5. 40% of all dollars earned by authors from ebooks on are earned by indie self-published ebooks.
  6. In mid-year 2014, indie-published authors as a cohort began taking home the lion’s share (40%) of all ebook author earnings generated on while authors published by all of the Big Five publishers combined slipped into second place at 35%.

Numbers 3, 4, 5 and 6 represent some very knees-up numbers for the self-publishing sector.

And Howey arrives this time with some additional high-level observations, including:

The increasing prevalence of lower-priced Big Five titles has had no measurable effect on the Big Five’s share of titles on Amazon’s daily-sales-based ebook bestseller lists.


The return to agency pricing by two of the Big Five has had no measurable effect on the Big Five’s share of titles on Amazon’s daily-sales-based ebook bestseller lists.

What of course happens as you read further is that you begin to sense that the AuthorEarnings protocol is unable to produce negative news for the self-publishing community. Here, for example, is a look at the 12 months of quarterly snapshots, which Howey understands as “the continued progressive growth of indie market share at the expense of traditionally published ebooks.”

Cheer after cheer, the research’s indications of self-publishing’s wide presence lead Howey to approach the ISBN question by asking “If one-third of all ebooks purchased in the US are now obviously and verifiably self-published, why do publishing industry news outlets and pundits continue to claim otherwise?”

Hugh Howey
Hugh Howey

His answer: bad data — which, in fact, may simply not show those pundits what he has seen in his own calculations. But he doesn’t say why the data is bad, although we know, don’t we? Well, of course we do.

The data is bad because: Amazon still declines to report ebook sales data as a matter of corporate choice. [Though they do report sales of physical books through Nielsen BookScan].

Howey (pictured) talks of pundits relying on BookStats, StatShot and Nielsen’s PubTrack. He goes to impressive length to explain how and why these are, as we know, not adequately representative of the scene. No device or analytical regime can be: because Amazon is holding its sales data secret.

Perhaps Howey takes this point as a given, something understood by everyone across the board.

Early on, he points out that a generally accepted figure for Amazon’s control of the US ebook market is 67 percent.

Well, gosh, if we get no data on 67 percent of the market, then any attempt to evaluate the market’s shape and size will require complex estimates and blind spots. And we know that. This is a reason for producing AuthorEarnings, and for the formulas used by industry players in their own calculations. If Amazon reported its data, his and Data Guy’s spider-craft wouldn’t be needed.

And as we come to the ISBN, it’s worth noting that even Bowker, the agency that administers the ISBN in the States, frequently refers in its material to how many “published ISBNs” and/or “self-published ISBNs” it can track, not simply to how many books are out there. Bowker’s people, in my many talks with them, have shown me that they know all too well about the growing inadequacy of the ISBN.

The ISBN can’t tell us how many books there are. That’s correct. And Bowker and Nielsen ISBN personnel, as I’ve reported in the past, will readily say so, on the record to a journalist, as they have said so to me. Howey’s concern is that statistical estimates based on the ISBN are “wildly, wildly wrong.” And we knew this. Some of us have been writing that for a long time. Here and here and here and here and here and in more places.

Read More

By Porter Ander­son

The FutureBook: AuthorEarnings’ winter report — ISBN On Ice!

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