Meaningless numbers in Digital Publishing

publishing.pngReally, it’s articles like this one that both infuriate me and give me a great reputation in digital publishing circles. And it’s not the Huffington Post’s fault – the actual report from the Association of American Publishers isn’t much better.

Here’s the headline if you don’t want to click through:

eBook Sales Increase Nearly 116% In January, Paperback Sales Plunge Nearly 31%

I hate percentages in this context. Hate them. They’re worse than meaningless. Going up 100% means doubling – but if you’ve sold one, doubling your sales doesn’t mean crap. And the eBook market is still small enough of a segment of the total book sales that it’s not useful to compare change in percentages other than to get a trend and the vague shape of that trend.

Unfortunately, the real numbers posted aren’t any better. They’re aggregated sales figures. Aggregate and averaged numbes are only useful if all products are priced approximately the same.

For example – just taking eBooks I’ve bought in the last few months – Mike Stackpole’s In Hero Years I’m Dead… costs $4.99, while Anton Strout’s Dead Waters is priced at $7.99 (strangely, the same as the new paperback), and Pat Rothfuss’ The Wise Man’s Fear is priced at $12.99 (far cheaper than the hardcover list price, but just under the discounted h/c price). So if Pat Rothfuss were to hit the bestseller totally dominate the bestseller list through sheer awesomeness, that might just skew some averages, huh? 1

So we can’t really prove much from these numbers at all – except whether the total market is growing. It might be from wider adoption of eBooks, or those who have digital devices just reading more.

But we can learn something from these numbers. You can price your products in the middle of the pack – which is why The Crimson Pact is available for $5. You can make sure that you price your eBook less than a paperback (because Amazon sure as hell makes sure you know that Penguin priced Dead Waters and The Wise Man’s Fear, but barely mentions it with The Crimson Pact and doesn’t mention it at all for In Hero Years I’m Dead….

And most importantly, you can learn to take sensational reports with a metric butt-ton of salt and pay attention to your own sales instead.

1 Simple math: You sell $10 worth of items. The items you have for sale cost $1, $2, $3, $5, $7, $8, and $10. How many items did you sell? There is no way to tell.

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