Recent performance reports from Simon & Schuster and Penguin, which can be taken as indicative in some ways of what’s going on at the rest of the Big Six and instructive about what’s happening across trade publishing, say that revenue is flat or down, profits are up, and the ebook share of revenue is growing. The most recent reports were that ebooks grew to 14% of revenue at Penguin and at Simon & Schuster.
First a few observations about what those numbers really mean, and then some thoughts about the implications for the months to come.
We must remember we’re comparing apples and oranges when we talk about the percentage of sales that are ebooks versus print books. This percentage is, presumably, arrived at by adding print book sales (which are shipments subject to returns) to ebook sales (which are actual consumer purchases with zero or negligible returns) and then dividing the ebook revenue number by the total revenue number.
This explains the apparent anomaly pointed out in the S&S reporting which sees the ebook percentage higher in the first quarter than in the second, which has occurred in successive years. This is not actually hard to understand. One report I saw pointed to part of the explanation: that Christmas recipients of ereading devices are loading them up in January, an effect which is absent in the second quarter. But what is also the case is that Q1 print sales (which are shipments, let’s remember) are depressed by two factors: they contain returns from Q4 Christmas sell-in and Q1 is not normally a big one for new book shipments.
So as long as there are larger shipments of returnable print taking place in anticipation of Christmas sales and large numbers of new device owners created each Christmas, we can expect the Q1 number to be artificially inflated and the Q2 number to show an apparent decline.
The annual Q2 decline is only apparent; it is not real.
The percentage of revenue number lends itself to misinterpretation. It is an average. You will pardon me for repeating the truth that “the six-foot tall man drowns walking across a river that is an average of three feet deep.” Averages are misleading. That mid-teens percentage number, quite aside from the apples-and-oranges base of it, is also misleading. (I hasten to emphasize that nobody is being deliberately misleading; there is no suggestion intended here that the number isn’t real or that there is any desire to lead people to mistaken conclusions by reporting it.)