Publishing should fight ebook retailers for more data

I've got a guest column in the new edition of The Bookseller, the trade magazine for the UK publishing industry. It's called "Tangible Assets," and it points out that of all the fights that publishing has had with the ebook sector -- DRM, pricing, promotion -- the one they've missed is access to data. Whatever else is going on with publishers and Amazon, Google, Apple, et al, the fact that publishing knows almost nothing about its ebook customers and has no realtime view into its ebook sales; and that the ebook channel knows almost everything, instantaneously, is untenable and unsustainable.

I just came off a US tour for my YA novel Homeland, which Tor Teen published in the US in February, and which Titan will publish this coming September in the UK. I went to 23 cities in 25 days, a kind of bleary and awesome whirlwind where I got to see friends from across the USA—Internet People to a one—for about 8.5 minutes each, in a caffeinated, exhausted rush.

Inevitably, I had this conversation: "How's the book doing?" and I got to say: "Oh, awesome! It's a New York Times and Indienet bestseller!" (It stayed on the NYT list for four weeks, so I got to say this a lot). And then, always: "So, how many copies does that come out to?" And my answer was always, "No one knows."

This is where the Internet People began to boggle. "No one knows?"

"Oh, there's some Nielsen reporting from the tills of participating booksellers—you can get that if you spend a fortune. But there's no realtime e-book numbers given to the publishers. We'll all find out exactly how the book performed in a couple of months."

And that's where they lost their minds. The irate squawks that emerged from their throats were audible for miles. "You mean Amazon, Apple and Google knows exactly who comes to their stores, how they find their way to your books, where they're coming in from, how many devices they use and when, and they don't tell the publishers?"

Tangible assets


  1. The situation is moderately better for indie authors. We do have access to near-realtime sales data on Kindle sales, Createspace orders, Kobo and Smashwords sales. So we know how many books we’ve sold. Our non-retailer web presence is typically wholly owned and controlled by us, so we know where people are coming from, and how many people we send to the online retailers.

    But we still don’t have access to the depth of information Amazon has. I want to see the referrer fields for people who got to my Amazon book page, the search terms people used on Amazon to find my book, the search engine results that send people to Amazon, and most of all, the association between other books people liked and bought and my own books (e.g. all the data that feeds the recommendation engine.)

  2. If Google is engaged in a “creepy, privacy-invading” trawl through readers’ data it doesn’t magically become OK if they share it with you, Cory.

  3. Not a solution, but makes me wonder, one way around to get info on customers is to buy publicity on Amazon for your book that is for sale on Amazon. Can’t configure Google ads to sell only on Amazon though.

  4. It’s a mystery to me why large companies continue to dominate the e-book sales market. Isn’t this supposed to be the age of mom-and-pop shops selling downloads via their own websites?

    1.  It’s the DRM, at least partly.  Publishers could sell direct to readers, but Kindle is entrenched as the leader and you can only sell Kindle DRM’d stuff through Amazon.  The other major option is Adobe DRM, but that doesn’t work on Kindles.   We’re a small publisher and sell through the big stores (most of our sales) and direct from our site, as well, since we’re DRM-free.  The other half of the problem is discovery– Amazon has a recommendation engine and is a one-stop shop, which is much easier than going from publisher site to publisher site looking for something to read.

  5. The Bookseller’s website seems to be down. Which, as an indicator of the industry’s attitude to all  things internet-related, is oddly apt…

  6. Ask yourself this Cory, would the major publishing houses make the sales figures for your book public? I think not…

  7. Good points. The hoarding of data by the big retailers hurts publishers from being as effective as they could be. Hopefully this will change as the market matures.

  8. Cory, Cory, Cory … Don’t you know that the most famous Fiction published today is the Quarterly Royalty Statement (aka Hollywood Accounting).

    The reason they won’t tell you how much you are selling is because they don’t want to share the income with you. You should be able to get this information directly from Amazon, but you may have signed the rights away.

    Just go and read the things by Kristine Rusch to get a feeling of how messed up things are.

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