Value of Self-Publishing is the “Blind Spot in the Market”

In English Language by Edward Nawotka

A total of 211,269 print and e-book self-published titles were published in 2011.

By Edward Nawotka

Show floor at BookExpo America 2012

If you’re a first-timer walking the halls of BookExpo America, you might feel a bit assaulted by the number of self-published writers pitching their books to whomever they can pigeonhole for a second (it’s especially egregious in the press room). Veterans are used to it, though it is no less a distraction from the day-to-day work of the conference. But if you felt there were even more self-published authors on hand than in previous years — statistically speaking, you’re likely right:

Bowker released its annual estimate of title production, noting that annual “traditional” print book production hit 347,178, a rise of 6% over 2010’s number of 328,259; total titles, which include both “traditional” and “nontraditional” books (such as public domain POD titles) was 1.5 million titles — down substantially from the previous two years and 2010 in particular, when it ballooned to more than 3 million titles.

The stats also wrapped self-publishing titles into the mix of traditionally published print titles for the first time, and concluded there were 124,700 self-published titles according to ISBNs issued — 36% of the total “traditional” output. When self-published e-books are added to the mix, the total hit 211,269 total titles.

Yet, the true value of the self-publishing market remains one of the “blind spots” of the publishing industry, according to Bowker’s VP of Publishing Services, Kelly Gallagher. Speaking at BookExpo America about the BookStats project, undertaken with the Book Industry Study Group and the Association of American Publishers, Gallagher noted that “We know that Kindle, for example,” has its own ecosystem of creation, discovery, sales and trackability — some Kindle e-titles don’t even have an ISBN. The self-publishing market has several elements that don’t fit the mores.”

This type of gap in data is exactly what BookStats was created to address. BookStats was launched last year to provide intelligent, accurate data on the book industry. The result is something called a “DataCube” which tracks 36 different dimensions — a dozen categories, channels and formats.

This year results won’t be available until July, but some preliminary data was made available. A total of 1,977 publishers submitted information to BookStats (almost matching the inaugural year’s number of 1,963). This represented $16.7 billion in the source data (compared with $14.8 billion). Eleven publishers participated who had more than $500 million in net sales and another 13 with sales of between $100–$500 million.

In all there are 35,000 publishers with an active ISBN listed in Bowker’s Books in Print; 49 publishers have greater than 10,000 ISBNs; 364 with 1,000 to 10,000 ISBNs; and 1,500 with 100 to 1,000 ISBNs.

“Nontraditional publishers — companies like BiblioBazaar, which buy hundreds of hundreds of ISBNs and put them on a college thesis — constitute a very large part of our industry,” said Gallagher.

Of course, “methodology matters,” said Bowker’s Gallagher. “So how do you extract the data?” Very deliberately, apparently. “The ISBN count is divided by their total revenue reported, and thus determine an average sale per ISBN.” How do you get to an extrapolated number from there? “We then calculated out the value of each bucket per category of publisher.”

“We can track e-books, enhanced e-books and paid mobile apps,” said Angela Bole, deputy executive director of the BISG. “But when we went back to ask for data about this, we found that publishers grouped all of them together, rather than parsing them out. You might interpret that to mean enhanced e-book sales have fallen, but that’s not necessarily the case. We need as an industry to standardize how we talk about these products.”

Last year total value of the market last year was calculated as $27.8 billion.

Publishers, who often seem to act on instinct more often than not, are getting comfortable crunching the numbers. Bole jokingly asked “How many of you out there are math majors?” and several people raised their hands, much to her surprise.

But it was Tina Jordan, VP of the Association of American Publishers, who summed it up best: “It’s the fear and the thrill of big data.”

DISCUSS: What’s the Brand Value of “Self-Publishing”?

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

A widely published critic and essayist, Edward Nawotka serves as a speaker, educator and consultant for institutions and businesses involved in the global publishing and content industries. He was also editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives since the launch of the publication in 2009 until January 2016.