Print Vs E-Book Sales Nonsense And A Definitive Recipe For A Modern Bestseller

Print Vs E-Book Sales Nonsense & The Definitive Recipe For A Modern Bestseller

Every month, I read another article about book trends which seemingly heralds a new dawn in bookselling. The only major trend I see in these articles is that people who write these articles are apparently incapable of reading data.

For instance, this article in the Guardian last week declares that print books are outselling e-books, as though this is an earth-shattering finding worthy of a scientific orgasm.

I am, broadly, an analyst of data by trade (and by trade I mean an actual day job which pays me an actual salary to settle my actual bills), so I’m going to say I know something about this. To extrapolate a trend or conclusion from data there must be evidence of a sustainable, or at least obvious, provable pattern. A teeny tiny spike in physical book sales plus a 4% drop in e-book sales does not constitute anything of the sort.

This desperate search for meaning where there is none wouldn’t be so bad, if publishers weren’t using bogus claims like this to make publishing decisions, which means that crappy books are often published instead of good ones. Some of the recent dodgy trends I’ve seen have had serious implications for authors, because they make people in the book industry think “Oh look, that’s the next big thing, we’ll only look for more of that then”.

Bullshit Is So Hot Right Now

A few years ago we were all told that e-books were outstripping sales of physical books. Now we’re told that physical books are outstripping e-books, as though this is something meaningful which has never happened before – apart from the centuries of bookselling before the 2000s, of course.

I can think of multiple reasons why physical books are again selling in greater numbers than e-books, and none of them have anything to do with literature.

By far the biggest reason is the recent production frenzy in what I like to call “Books For People Who Don’t Read Books”. This type of book usually just doesn’t work in e-book format, and includes glossy coffee table books from C-list celebrities, which are really nothing more than bound hard copy Instagram feeds; the overblown and not-terribly-successful glut of Hygge books in 2016; and the Ladybird parodies which have a very special niche in the gift book market, such as How It Works: The Husband, which in turn spawned the Famous Five parodies such as Five Go To Brexit Island. Before that, we had the adult colouring book phenomenon, and through it all, we have the enduring popularity of aspirational cookbooks, especially those supposedly written by celebrities.

Apart from the recipe books, all the others are simply fashions which die out – some, like the Hygge books, before they’ve even really started – but these print medium-dependent books began dominating the market in 2014.

From 2009-2012, fashion resided entirely elsewhere. First, sales of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series and Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy exploded, showing what can happen when young adult crossover fiction really takes hold in the adult market. Then EL James appeared with Fifty Shades Of Grey, and you couldn’t walk onto a self-respecting train without encountering someone eyeball-deep in handcuffs and inexplicably aroused ingénues.

Just these two genres, however – YA Crossover and Erotica – were the reason why e-book sales rose so quickly and so noticeably. This was because they favoured a) younger, more tech-savvy readers and b) embarrassed readers who appreciated the anonymity (not to mention ambidexterity) of e-Readers. As soon as these two genres fell out of favour, so did e-book growth.

Okay, But Why So Angry, Tara? Didn’t You Vow To Try Out Pacifism In 2017?

I like numbers because they are a big flirty tease. I spend a lot of my life looking at numbers, trying to figure out what they’re trying to tell me. In my job I could easily extrapolate dodgy conclusions from a set of data, slap a catchy headline on a report, and toddle off to bitch about somebody by the water cooler while my half-assed argument does the rounds. But the people I work with are far too smart to accept such sloppy efforts. They would much rather find some truth in what I’m writing.

A report based on surveys which ask an unquantified number of non-age-specific children whether they like holding who knows what kind of paper books or e-books in their hands tells us nothing, whereas the lack of blockbuster children’s and YA titles in recent years speaks volumes. And describing a hardback copy of a stage play as “the latest Harry Potter” and saying that it simply ‘translates better in the printed form’ is disingenuous in the extreme.

Publishing tenuous conclusions based on poor analysis is the domain of lazy, fake news mongers. In the grand scheme of things, of course this might not matter to a lot of people when it comes to books. But when this sort of thing leads to celebrity trash eating up marketing budgets and damn good stories or characters never seeing the light of day, we all lose.


Now That You’ve Stopped Complaining, Could We Have A Joke Please

Sure. Here’s one I made earlier. Enjoy.

Print Vs E-Book Sales Nonsense And The Definitive Recipe For A Modern Bestseller

  66 comments for “Print Vs E-Book Sales Nonsense And A Definitive Recipe For A Modern Bestseller

  1. March 21, 2017 at 7:17 am

    That recipe is gas! Poor ghostwriter!
    Out of curiosity, did you come across anything definitive (and backed by actual facts) in the ebook v print space?

    Liked by 1 person

    • March 21, 2017 at 8:48 am

      June, the actual data I did see reported wasn’t newsworthy. I think that’s possibly why they were reaching so hard for headlines. Not to mention the fact that here’s still a huge amount of book sales data which isn’t reported at all.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. March 21, 2017 at 7:48 am

    Sorry, couldn’t get past scientific orgasm, for some reason Brian Cox popped into my head…

    Liked by 1 person

    • March 21, 2017 at 8:49 am

      Well, now he’s popped into my head too, Kathy, and I can’t say I’m too upset about it.


  3. March 21, 2017 at 7:49 am

    I work in education, we use dodgy conclusions based on poorly extrapolated data to inform current policy all of the time. Occasionally someone interprets the data in a different, equally inaccurate, manner and the policy changes. This seems to happen every few weeks. I need to get out of the profession really.
    My escape plan is to write an erotic parody of a beloved children’s classic, with recipes. That should cover all the bases. I think there’s some bloke who once came fourth on X-Factor living locally. He can pretend that he wrote it and we’ll split the profits.
    I’m going to be a millionaire (actually as post-Brexit sterling continues to lose it’s value that may well be true soon anyway, but it sadly won’t actually mean that I’m wealthy…)

    Liked by 9 people

    • March 21, 2017 at 8:50 am

      All joking aside, James, I think you’re onto a winner there. Maybe make it a scratch-&-sniff erotic parody too, to ensure the print requirement, and I’ll say I knew you before you were famous? On a more scientific note, you need to stop doing those advertising-funded studies. They only encourage conclusive tendencies.

      Liked by 1 person

      • March 21, 2017 at 9:32 am

        Sometimes it is useful to use questionable data to get my own way though…

        Liked by 1 person

        • March 21, 2017 at 9:49 am

          I think you’ll find that’s incorrect, James. You should have written ‘All of the times’

          Liked by 1 person

    • March 21, 2017 at 11:03 am

      Isn’t this what’s known as Policy Based Evidence Making? It was all the rage a few years ago – except the got the name muddled up and called it evidence based policy or some such nonsense.

      Liked by 2 people

      • March 21, 2017 at 11:09 am

        There’s nothing quite like forming a conclusion and concocting a hypothesis to support it, Rhoda…

        Liked by 2 people

      • March 21, 2017 at 1:36 pm

        That’s it. Still very much an ongoing trend…

        Liked by 2 people

  4. March 21, 2017 at 8:15 am

    I should listen to your well analysed and cogitated advice. While I languish here in the digital eco system, cookery book sales boom, not a single recipe of mine sold.
    Damn you statistics and publishing trends.

    Liked by 1 person

    • March 21, 2017 at 8:54 am

      Perhaps you should have concentrated on the notoriety first, Conor? Instead of the actual recipes? After all, nobody likes a clever clogs these days. You could do with being worse at everything.

      Liked by 1 person

      • March 21, 2017 at 10:19 am

        Through failure comes success…
        One of life’s great lessons.


  5. March 21, 2017 at 8:19 am

    “…not to mention ambidexterity” – Tara, you’ve outdone yourself this time!

    Liked by 1 person

    • March 21, 2017 at 8:55 am

      I did wonder who’d pick up on that Nick 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      • March 21, 2017 at 9:31 am

        Oh, so it was intentional? I thought it was just my mucky mind at play. Again. 😉

        Liked by 1 person

        • March 21, 2017 at 9:42 am

          Get your mind out of the gutter, babbitman. It’s getting too crowded in here to read.

          Liked by 1 person

      • Liberty On the Lighter Side
        March 21, 2017 at 11:06 am

        You didn’t mention it…so I won’t. 😉
        But I do think your paragraph on books for people who don’t read books is quite telling. I don’t believe it’s a bad thing that we don’t all have the same expectations in literature, however, there appears to be definite mirroring in the trend vs non-trend following populace with those expectations. It’s not new that money follows fashion follows money. The trick is learning to be content in one’s poor and lonely niche of taste and discernment. 🙂 Otherwise, as you said, be fortunate enough to have a day job.

        Liked by 1 person

        • March 21, 2017 at 11:24 am

          The real problem for me is that once a trend is identified, it spawns a thousand poor imitations. The most fashionable books start out with good examples but then we drown in a sea of crappy also-rans. If books were published less to trend and more on the basis of quality, I wouldn’t have to keep writing about this stuff!

          Liked by 2 people

  6. March 21, 2017 at 9:42 am

    Yay! Analyst buddy! What a shame that your colleagues are smart. One of the best things about being an analyst is that you’re the only one with the data (both raw and processed). I’ve found that you can basically tell people anything, if the story is good enough. I do a bit of Am-Dram too, so getting the delivery right in meetings isn’t a problem.
    This is absolutely not the reason that I am no longer a Police Intelligence Analyst. No. I have merely sold my soul to the corporate dollar and now make things up for a lot more money.
    Of course, it does mean that we are highly sceptical about crowing headlines and weak supporting data, as you have pointed out. Journalists do seem to make terrible analysts, leaping to so many wrong or irrelevant conclusions that you wonder if they have any clue about data at all.
    (By the way, if anyone actually believes I am an amoral manipulator of data, then they should go and read my short stories on my blog, seeing as they like a bit of fiction).

    Liked by 4 people

    • March 21, 2017 at 10:56 am

      Unfortunately, pretty much everyone in my job has the data or at the very least access to it and other analyses of it, so I don’t get away with much, babbitman. It’s a curse but it keeps me on my toes. It also might explain why I complain so much here. I’m glad you’re making the big bucks now by making stuff up. I think world events in the last year have shown that there is an insatiable appetite for bogus headlines. I hear the top bogus headlinemakers are pulling in 550% more than the 300% extra they were paid in 2015.

      Liked by 1 person

      • March 21, 2017 at 11:09 am

        Shhh! Don’t let them know that I’m making it all up. They think I’m in Excel but I’m on WordPress instead. Obviously.
        I guess you may already be aware of this terrific blog, but if not, ta-daa: !
        Enjoy. The post about the height of Disney Princesses is particularly excellent.

        Liked by 2 people

        • March 21, 2017 at 11:25 am

          That looks right up my street, so thank you, because I’d never seen it before. Off for a soothing dose of common sense now.

          Liked by 1 person

  7. March 21, 2017 at 11:50 am

    An incisive post, as always, Tara. I love reading your analyses, as they are always spot on.

    Liked by 1 person

    • March 21, 2017 at 2:02 pm

      Well, I do love to incise, jimmastro. And as long as I keep my sharp knives online apparently it’s okay because I’m not hurting anyone.


  8. March 21, 2017 at 1:22 pm

    What? People can use statistics to support any story they want to make if they only manipulate them enough to find the right ones? When numbers lie, who can you trust. 🙂

    Love the recipe, particularly how to properly prepare the ghostwriter. It made me giggle while at the same time sighing in sympathy.

    Liked by 2 people

    • March 21, 2017 at 2:03 pm

      The ghostwriter is pathetically grateful for your sympathy, Allie. Actually I think at this point the ghostwriter pretty much has Stockholm Syndrome.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. March 21, 2017 at 2:19 pm

    Nice recipe, Tara, but it sounds like it might give me heartburn. 🙂 I’m glad you’re on the bandwagon championing good literature and debunking the fake book news. Great rant.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. March 21, 2017 at 3:09 pm

    Reblogged this on Jan Hawke INKorporated and commented:
    Have an annoying ENT infection and can’t be arsed to do the proper sparkly reply that this truly merits. Fake news begins and ends in bad fiction, so why this should come as a surprise!
    Wicked recipe though – must crib it immediately <3.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. March 21, 2017 at 8:01 pm

    That recipe made me hungry. It’s amazing what some writers can do with leftovers.

    Oh to be a ghostwriter now that spring is here! At least they actually get paid so they can pay their actual bills. I’ve had a go writing about ghosts but it wasn’t the same.

    Liked by 1 person

    • March 21, 2017 at 8:31 pm

      Depends on how much they’re getting paid though, Veronica. It’s kept a tight-lipped secret, especially when it comes to writing for talentless reality stars. I’d be surprised if it’s enough to pay the bills, to be honest.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. March 22, 2017 at 1:11 am

    You have a great writing voice. Using only text you convey a great deal of personality and tone, which make posts like this a pleasure to read, independent of the subject itself. Thank you for sharing. There’s a real energy to your writing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • March 22, 2017 at 8:55 am

      Thanks Adam!


      • March 24, 2017 at 10:13 am

        Adam is obviously not Irish but thank god for the furriners express what the rest of us are too ashamed to.

        Liked by 1 person

        • March 24, 2017 at 12:59 pm

          You can never have enough shame in this country, Depterness. That’s what I always say. Thank Blog for the genteel openness of nice people abroad.


  13. Bob Johnston
    March 22, 2017 at 12:16 pm

    As an indie bookshop owner I do, of course, applaud the rise in print book sales, and the decline in those pesky ebook things that we have no access to. But, like you, I am hugely cautious of these reports. For starters, the reported decline in ebook sales reported by Nielsen Bookscan correlates (if my understanding is correct) with big publishers getting back the right to set their own pricing on ebooks via Amazon which (I believe) has led to a decline in sales of ebooks by the big publishers. But, Amazon does not share sales data for self-published ebooks with Nielsen so these are not reported. As in a previous post of yours, my guess is that many ebook readers are not prepared to pay over about €5 for an ebook (we won’t get into the argument about what books are worth today!) meaning that the the ebook market could be expanding hugely but isn’t reported. Also, Ireland saw a big increase in print book sales reported by Nielsen last year – “Yay!” we all shout – but actually, this is because Nielsen added Book Depository’s (& a couple of others) print sales into Ireland into the reported panel where they were never counted before so, surprise surprise, they counted more books! With all that said, my independent bookshop has seen a sales increase every year since we opened 7 years ago (even last year when the poor sterling rate made books cheaper than before, meaning I had to sell more books to break even) and on the days when I begin to despair at it all, I remind myself that trends and competitors’ results mean very little, and being able to pay my end-of-month of bills means everything.

    Liked by 1 person

    • March 22, 2017 at 1:43 pm

      Bob, it’s so good to have the bookseller’s perspective on this, and even better that you have the inside track on what’s missing. Personally I would like sales trends to favour actual bookshops over online sales any day, but nobody is benefitting from false conclusions. Not even publishers. And I also have a feeling that the woeful short-termism of their pricing policy for e-books is going to do even more harm to authors than before. If it wasn’t for the good news that your fabulous Gutter bookshops were seeing growth I’d be too depressed to even joke about it.


  14. March 22, 2017 at 12:54 pm

    *happy sigh* I’ve nothing productive or interesting or even clever to comment on, except that I always enjoy reading your blog and I pity the ghost-writer and their crushed dreams.

    Liked by 1 person

    • March 22, 2017 at 1:45 pm

      You can comment around here anytime, Ness. I’m a sucker for compliments, especially when they’re as wise and incontrovertible as that. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  15. March 22, 2017 at 9:39 pm

    You know I don’t do serious, Tara, but can I make a very serious request. Can you please get on and complete some fiction – I’m guessing it would be fiction with humour included. I love your writing style, and would love to see what you did with a story.

    Liked by 1 person

    • March 23, 2017 at 7:47 am

      I’m working on it, Graeme! SO HARD. On selling it, at least. The finishing of it is no problem. I’m finishing it all over the shop. It appears however that world domination might be a teeny tiny bit harder than I thought.

      Liked by 1 person

  16. March 22, 2017 at 9:54 pm

    This is why I enjoy Ben Goldacre’s writing e.g. his book: I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that. If you over-boil and chop the plot template you’d get the finish one chapter in and the climax on the third page, with the background info about chapter nine… but I don’t suppose the readers will notice anyway.

    Liked by 1 person

    • March 23, 2017 at 9:01 am

      I think it’s part of dumbing down in general, Hilary… as long as a celebrity name is on the cover, there’s apparently no need to make it good. Everything’s being sold by brand.


  17. March 23, 2017 at 3:53 am

    Tara, I can feel your anger in how data, especially in the publishing world tends to confuse. Isn’t that what democracy is? Something like, to scratch and blow so that the victim doesn’t feel the pain. I tend to shut myself out of everything and everyone and live in my own little Island. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • March 23, 2017 at 9:03 am

      I’m not sure that’s what democracy is at all, jinlobify. In a democracy we’re supposed to have a choice, and living in an echo chamber is no choice at all!


  18. March 24, 2017 at 11:16 pm

    Luckily I’m not someone who works from a recipe book (coincidentally I’ve submitted my latest column which features my culinary talents) so I’m quite happy to work away off my own unique, useless, unpopular, simple, formula, lacking recipe ignoring trends and fancy notions. That’s why I’m so well known and popular I suppose!
    We must swap recipe ideas some time.

    Liked by 1 person

    • March 26, 2017 at 7:03 pm

      We must, Tric. I’ve a killer (literally) recipe for world domination that I’m preparing to release but I’m willing to give you a taster first if you like.


  19. Sue Bridgwater
    March 27, 2017 at 11:45 am

    Reblogged this on Skorn and commented:
    Yes, Oh yes. Thanks yet again Tara.

    Liked by 1 person

    • March 28, 2017 at 1:43 am

      I do my best, Sue. Yet there’s so much to lampoon, and so little time…


  20. April 11, 2017 at 3:33 pm

    God I love Angry Tara’s posts! “Equipment Required…A lot of neck”. Brilliant.
    I may have to nick that recipe by the way. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • April 11, 2017 at 4:16 pm

      Oh, it’s in the public domain now, Donna. Nick away. Although if you get poisoned, or even a mild case of indigestion, don’t come crying to me…


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