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A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.

Friday, September 24, 2010

The Unbearable Darkness of E-Books

So once upon a time, and not that long ago really, I could look at my Nielsen Bookscan numbers and know that I was really and truly getting my weekly report card. Now, it's hard to be sure if I'm even getting an incomplete.

And it's all because of those darned e-books.

With Tanya Huff's permission, let us look at her excellent series of "Valor" military sf novels.

Two years ago when Valor's Trial came out in hardcover, I could very easily look at those numbers and look at the numbers for the hardcover of The Heart of Valor from the year before, and I could see that it was good. Over the first few weeks, hardcover sales of the 2008 release were up something like 40% from the year-before book. And now I'm looking at the release of The Truth of Valor, and that's up by 25% from what The Heart of Valor did in 2007, but it's down 15% from what Valor's Trial did in its first few weeks in 2008. Down 15%!!

Panic time? Well, no...

Let's look at just the Kindle. 2008 it's a novelty item not yet into its second generation just starting to get caught up on the orders from its first several months of existence. Now, though we don't know exactly the Wiki entry for the Kindle reports a number thru the end of 2009 between 1.5 million from outsiders and 3 million from informed insiders. Shall we all agree by now that sales are almost certainly over 2 million? Amazon in its fudgy statistic kind of way has told us it now sells more Kindle books than hardcover books, which isn't exactly the same as saying that Kindle sales outpace hardcover sales on any given book.

And that's just the Kindle. There are millions of iPads sold, and I can iBook Truth of Valor for $11.99 in seconds. And then we've got the Nook and the Kobo and all kinds of other gizmos and gadgets all with apps that allow me to read to my Android from my SmartPhone while sitting on my Desktop and balancing my Laptop with my other hand with all of these devices probably wirelessly syncing to one another.

And there is no Bookscan for e-books, at least not yet. The sales for e-books are totally opaque. Even more opaque than was once the case for print books, where I can visit stores and count copies on Friday vs. copies on Monday.

So what, really, does it mean that the hardcover edition of Truth of Valor is down 15% from the hardcover edition of Valor's Trial? It means nothing, nothing at all!

Did the e-book business also drop 15% like the hardcover did? Well, fat chance of that. I'm certain that more people have purchased e-books this year than two years ago. But by how much? If I think e-book sales have doubled, then a 15% drop is a smaller drop. If I think e-book sales quadrupled, which they may well have, then the 15% drop on Nielsen Bookscan for the hardcover becomes an increase in total sales inclusive of e-books. The 15% "decrease" could actually be a 15% increase, all dependent on those e-book sales increases.

Why can I even contemplate the thought that e-book sales might have quadrupled in two years? Well, for a new book like Tanya's the print sales are still the lion's share of copies sold, but every month more and more little tidbits like these... For Elizabeth Moon's Hugo-nominated Remnant Population, the e-book sold three times the number of copies as the trade paperback on her most recent royalty statement. For David Louis Edelman's Jump 225 Trilogy, which are wonderful very tech-oriented novels very well-suited to an e-book adapting audience (I think they're the first set of books to really take the conceptualization of William Gibson's Neuromancer and bring it along into today), I've seen numbers for Kindle sales that are about equal with the Bookscan scales, so total e-book sales could well exceed those of print.

Hence, when I'm looking at Tanya's statements, there's this big gaping hole of uncertainty where I know the e-book numbers are up but I've no way to fill in that blank right away. And it's hard to even say when I can. Depending on if an e-book vendor reports monthly or quarterly, or with a 15 day, 30 day or 45 day lag, the first royalty statement I get for this book could reflect e-book sales for one month to 30 September of for three months thru 30 November or anything in-between.

Suffice to say, I hate this. I like information, I feast on information, and here I don't know, instead I compare the Kindle store rank to the bookstore rank on Amazon, guess what it means, then read tea leaves. And there are more and more instances like with the new Tanya Huff book where I have to recognize the presence of "known unknowns." And while the example here has a two year gap between books in series, the growth in e-book sales is now so strong that I can't even trust 2010 over 2009 comparisons.

This I can trust: if I negotiate a deal tomorrow with a publisher, and I'm looking at a 5% or 25% drop in hardcover sales, the publisher will almost certainly try and tell me that the sales are down by 5% or 25%, and hope I'll ignore the fact that the e-book sales are up by 300% or 400% and the total sales actually increased by 10%.

Bottom line, more and more, day by day, the print side of things isn't the full story for the publishing business.

If you haven't yet tried Tanya's Valor books, the place to start would be with the DAW omnibus edition of A Confederation of Valor, which has the first two books for just $8.99. Tanya served in the Canadian Naval Reserve, so she knows her stuff. Book Loons says in reviewing The Truth of Valor, "Tanya Huff writes the best space opera around." Night Owl reviews says "the Torin Kerr books are my favorite novels in this genre." And Book Yurt thnks "Torin is definitely who we'd all like to have our back when the shit hits the fan."

And Sept 30, we get word of this rave review from "Huff has taken the genre light years beyond what anybody in the past could have imagined it being. This is not just a good book for its genre, it's a good book—period."


Myke said...

Is there a risk that an unscrupulous publisher will try to use this darkness to stiff younon royalties owed?

Joseph L. Selby said...

With Amazon trying to strengthen its position in the marketplace, this seems like a perfect opportunity for agents to work with the company determine a better means of sales tracking on behalf of authors independent of the publisher. These numbers should be pretty easy for Amazon to generate. It's just a matter of frequency and volume.

The Daring Novelist said...

Indies can see their own numbers instantly (on Amazon, anyway). Perhaps access to Amazon's reporting numbers is something to look for in future contracts?