More than just price

Last month, Bowker published the results of its annual review of U.S. consumer book spending. The full report, 2013 U.S. Consumer Book Demographics and Buying Behaviors Annual Review, is now available as either a PDF download or a print-on-demand physical copy for $999.

The press release included selected statistics from the report, including:

  • Purchases from online retailers accounted for 44% of book buying dollars
  • Spending on eBooks climbed from 7% to 11% of the total
  • Demand for eBooks is strongest in the detective, romance and science fiction genres
  • Women account for 58% of overall book spending

The Annual Review represents information "culled from the Bowker Market Research consumer panel of almost 70,000 Americans who bought books of any format and from any source in 2012". As such, it provides demographic data that services like Bookstats, a joint effort of the Association of American Publishers and the Book Industry Study Group, are unable to offer.

The demographic data prompted press coverage that tended to emphasize who was buying books (women), more than the significant shift in where those books are being bought. For that analysis, Bookstats (most recently updated in May) provides a better overview.

According to Bookstats, online retail accounted for about 27.5% of 2010 publisher revenues from retail outlets – an estimated total of about $3.7 billion. Two years later, online revenues had increased to just under $7 billion, representing 48.2% of all retail revenues. Online retail is now the single largest sales channel, ahead of jobbers/wholesalers and institutional sales, with a dollar share that is more than three times the total for retail chains.

These figures include publisher revenues from online retailers, chains, independents, mass merchants, specialty stores, college bookstores and unclassified retail outlets. In its reporting, Bookstats excludes online and college bookstores from its "retail" category. Leaving out college bookstores would increase online retailing's share to 61.8%.

As bookbuying continues to shift online, access to physical bookshelves becomes less of a competitive advantage for traditional publishers. That's a point I've made as recently as yesterday.

That's an important aspect of online book buying, but it isn't the only interesting part. Since 2008, the first year for which sales data is available for the revised Bookstats database, the average publisher revenue per unit for books sold through an online channel has exceeded the prices recorded for both chain and independent bookstores. In 2012, the averages were:

  • $9.70 (online)
  • $8.24 (independent)
  • $7.72 (chains)

There is no control for title mix, so the comparison has its weaknesses. Still, the consistency over five years does suggest that online channels compete on more than just price, something we don't hear as often as we might.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

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