Largest Publishers Supply Less Than 8% of Ebook Titles; Achieve 50% of Ebook Sales

October 29th, 2013

If you read this entire blog entry your eyes are very likely to glaze over: it contains an overload of stats & calculations. So let me first offer an Executive Summary:

1. The five largest trade publishers in the U.S. published just 7.6% of all ebook titles between April 1, 2010, and May 21, 2012 (in other words, recently).

2. On the other hand their paltry title offering garnered roughly 50% of ebook sales volume during that period.

3. Still, despite those lopsided figures, ebook publishing is eroding the market share of the largest trade publishers, which stood at 65.1% less than a decade ago.


One of the latest filings in the ad nauseam Department of Justice struggle with Apple and the largest U.S. publishers (except Random House) offers some data nuggets that I find intriguing. The filing is a 103-page expert report from Roger E. Noll (PDF), hired by the state governments to estimate damages by the 5 publishers against consumers. (See Note 1 below.)

Publishers Weekly, quoting from the report, states that 1,348,121 ebook titles (excluding textbooks) were “purchased at least once” between April 1, 2010, and May 21, 2012. The top four e-book retailers at the time — Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple, and Sony — accounted for 98% of all retail ebook sales.

Noll calculates that 83,463 titles were sold by the five settling publishers. Random House is not among them, yet was the largest trade publisher during that period. For the fiscal year 2012 Random House (Bertelsmann) provided an estimate (PDF) that “more than 47,000 English-, German-, and Spanish- language Random House titles are available as e-books.” Today I found 18,423 results for “Random House” in NOOK Books on Barnes & Noble. Adding the latter (more useful) number into mix suggests that the (now) Big 5 published roughly 7.6% of all ebooks offered in the period under discussion. (See Note 2 below.)

To understand this data, first the easy bit: total title output in some perspective. To quote from a decade ago:

U.S. Book Production Soars to 175,000 New Titles in 2003

May 27, 2004 — R.R. Bowker, the leading provider of bibliographic information in North America, today released statistics on U.S. book publishing compiled from its Books In Print database. Based on preliminary figures, Bowker is projecting that U.S. title output in 2003 increased a staggering 19% to 175,000 new titles and editions, the highest total ever recorded.

The latest print book output recorded by Bowker ranges from “328,259 titles in 2010 to a projected 347,178 for 2011.” Ebooks are adding an order of magnitude number to the total. (See note 3 below for further detail on the number of titles published annually.)

Now the tricky part: market share.

The Publishers Weekly article quotes from Noll’s expert witness report that “the 6% of e-book titles sold by the five major houses (excluding Random House) generated more than $1.54 billion” in sales.

BookStats, the joint AAP/BISG data collection project, reported total revenues for the U.S. trade book industry at $13.94 billion in 2010, $13.97 billion in 2011 and $15.05 billion in 2012, for a three-year trade sale total of $43 billion.

BookStats separately reported that ebooks made up 6.4% of trade revenue in 2010 ($905 million), 15% in 2011 ($2.074 billion), and 20% in 2012 ($3.04 billion). Total ebook sales for the three years are then $6.2 billion (14.4% of overall trade sales in the period).

PRHOf course we know next to nothing about U.S. market share data for Random House or for Penguin, though estimates of the now merged companies peg their combined worldwide marketshare at 25%. The ownership of the venture is split 53% for Random House owner Bertelsmann and 47% for Penguin owner Pearson. This is assumed to roughly reflect their book sale ratios (on a worldwide basis) when the deal was struck in 2012.

Noll’s assessment of the percent of the damages incurred by each of the five publishers charged pegs Penguin’s sales in the period at $481,408,045 or 31% of the total. If I add in (a roughly estimated) $500 million for Random House total sales for the big publishers would hit $2.05 billion.

In the trading period covered by the DOJ suit, if we accept the there’s no significant seasonality to ebook sales, total trade publisher ebook sales would be just over $4 billion. The big 5 (formerly Big 6) then account for roughly 50% of ebook sales volume in this period.

To put this data in perspective I turned to The Culture and Commerce of Publishing in the 21st Century by Albert Greco, Clara Rodriguez, and Robert Wharton (Stanford University Press, 2006). A chart on page 15 of the book shows that in 2004 the 10 largest trade publishers (which, through consolidation, are roughly equivalent to the top 5 today) held 65.1% of the market; let’s call it two-thirds. Based on this data ebooks are starting to have a significant role in reducing the industry dominance by the largest publishers. Can that be a bad thing?

Next we have to focus on the all-too-dominant online retailer.


1. The damages calculated by Prof. Noll, given that he represents the plaintiffs, could naturally tend to the high side, consistent with how expert witnesses ply their trade (this aspect has been criticized in some of the trade press). But the underlying sales estimates, based as they usually are on published reports, are less pliable than the deductive techniques an expert might use to extrapolate damages from this core data.

2. Some variables lie outside of this data, mainly that we don’t know exactly when the titles that were purchased were published, which could throw the calculation off. But as book buying skews heavily to recently-published titles the factor should not be large.

3. Bowker recently reported that the number of self-published titles (both print and digital) in 2012 “jumped to more than 391,000, up 59 percent over 2011.” That puts the number of self-published titles at 231,000 in 2010. In 2012 Bowker noted that “while print accounts for 63 percent of self-published books, ebooks are gaining fast. E-book production in 2011 was 87,201, up 129 percent over 2010.” Bowker recorded roughly 265,000 self-published ebooks in the three years 2010-2012, suggesting that a million or so ebooks came from publishing houses, a number that isn’t borne out by other studies. It’s well known the many self-published authors aren’t using ISBNs and so don’t show up on Bowker’s radar but the figure nonetheless seems surprisingly large.

November 6, 2013

Over at Dear Author, Jane states “I’m not sure I agree with McIlroy’s final conclusion – that ebooks are having a significant role in reducing industry dominance by the largest publishers.”

I replied:

Thanks Jane for covering my blog post. I appreciate the critique.

The best marketshare figures I can find that are more recent than those quoted on my blog are Michael Hyatt’s , which showed 57.7% marketshare for the top 5 in 2009, a relatively modest decline from the 65.1 in 2004 (particularly because these numbers are always a little slippery).

I should have been more explicit in my argument. We know from numerous sources that ebook sales are eating into print sales, certainly for the largest publishers. With ebook sales now accounting for roughly 23-30% of the largest publishers total sales, and with their print book sales shrinking, the only way that these publishers can maintain their current market share is either by replicating their market dominance in ebooks, or by significantly increasing their market share in the remaining print book market. Neither seems likely.

Self-published authors, small & nimble, though still with modest sales volumes on a relative basis, are proving far more adept at learning how to successfully market their work than are the big trade publishing groups. That to me suggests that as ebook sales continue to grow as a percentage of total book sales, self-published authors will gain market share.

I’m not trying to imply that the mighty Random Penguin should have sleepless nights. But for the first time in many decades the publishing industry has a chance of becoming less dominated by a very small cadre.