Economics Mobile Personal Technology

Are There Really More eBook Sales Than Paperback Sales?

Updated 23 April : The Answer Is “No”
There was a flurry of press during the past week with headlines like this one: “E-book sales make history in the US, top paperback books in sales.”

But is that really what the Association of American Publishers (AAP) data (or the press release) said?

For February 2011, e-Books ranked as the #1 format among all categories of Trade publishing (Adult Hardcover, Adult Paperback, Adult Mass Market, Children’s/Young Adult Hardcover, Children’s/Young Adult Paperback). [emphasis added]

Trade Book Sales - 2009-2010
Trade Book Sales Data From AAP*

Notice anything funny about these categories? Not one, not two, but three of them are “paperback” books: adult paperback, adult mass market, and children’s/young adult paperback. (See the NYT on the difference between adult paperbacks and adult mass market.)

These are categories based on content (adult, children’s/young adult) not format (such as hardback, paperback, eBook or audiobook). However, both eBooks and audiobooks cross category; that is, there are both adult and children’s books in these two electronic digital formats. Moreover, these are books for the general public and do not include religious, education or professional books, many of which are “paperback”.

See how the headline overstates the case made by the press release?

Here’s the February 2011 sales breakdown for these six categories of trade books per the AAP press release:

  • eBook sales were $90.3 million
  • Adult Trade categories combined (Hardcover, Paperback and Mass Market) were $156.8 million
  • Children’s/Young Adult categories combined (Hardcover and Paperback) were $58.5 million
Trade Book Sales By Format
Trade Book Sales By Format : Paperback, Hard Cover, eBook

Some news reports asserted that February 2011 paperback sales were $81.2 million. If that is the case, hard cover sales would have been $134.1 million and the drop in total paperback sales would appear to be unprecedented. It is curious that APP chose to lump sales rather than break them out like prior releases.

Update: On Friday, I talked with AAP spokesperson Andi Sporkin (via several email exchanges**) about the report. According to Sporkin, the $81.2 million referenced in news accounts and a report from the Publisher’s Lunch was for “Adult only” paperbacks.

Whether Sporkin meant “Adult Mass Market” or “Adult Paperback” or a combination of these two categories is not clear. Regardless, the number does not include Children/YA paperback. Thus, eBooks did not surpass all paperback trade books in February sales if children/YA sales were more than $9.1 million (January sales were $25.4 million).

Digital Format A Growing Market

Although the news reports overstate the death of print, it’s clear that the eBook format/medium is an important and growing market.

For example, in September 2010, eBook sales were only $39.9 million — a little less than half the sales for February 2011. And for calendar 2010, eBook sales jumped to 8.7 percent of total trade publishing sales; the category had captured only 3.31 percent in 2009. In other words, it’s possible to talk about the importance of the category without simply rewriting a press release.

Additional sales data in the release includes:

  • Higher Education sales for YTD (January and February 2011) were $406.9 million
  • For K-12, YTD sales were $173 million

Both higher education and K-12 publishing also have eBook titles.


* The American Association of Publishers no longer has pre-2010 press releases on their website and has no releases with data from February-August 2010. Chart data can be seen in a Google Doc; some 2009 monthly data are calculated based on information in the corresponding 2010 press release.

** Edited email exchange:

KEG-1: I’m curious as to why this press release lumped sales data for all adult and all children’s categories rather than breaking out the data per prior month releases.

I’m also curious as to why so many press releases have been removed from the AAP website and why there are no data for February-August 2010. I would appreciate having those data if they are available.

AS-1:  I joined AAP three months ago to head the communications department and in extensive conversations with media, it became clear that the longstanding sales report release format – which simply listed every category and its increases/decreases vs the previous year’s same month and year-to-date – didn’t work for [our primary audience] …

In the release’s comparison of e-Books and print books, the print categories were combined because very few journalists tend to focus on the individual segments’ data. For those who do, I provide them with many more specific numbers upon request; it’s their choice to include or exclude those in their reporting …

In response to your question about the press release archive, you might’ve noticed that we recently redesigned and relaunched the website… the transition work on old releases is midway in our to-do list.

KEG-2: Could you please share the unaggregated numbers with me? I am also interested on knowing the numbers from Feb 2010.

AS-2: I don’t share specific data from the reports with non-media (the report is distributed by paid subscription and that would be a problem) but here’s the Publishers Lunch piece that includes what you’re seeking… “In January ebooks were the second-largest trade segment, behind trade paperbacks, but in February they moved ahead as the single largest-selling format (with trade paperbacks at $81.2 million).”

KEG-3: Does “trade paperbacks” in the Publishers Lunch piece refer to adult/children-YA/mass market as one group or does it mean mass market?  I wish you could simply share those no-longer-available-because-of-redesign press releases. :-/

And FWIW, I am “media” — I teach and write about this sector, and I write regularly at

AS-3: The trade paperbacks referenced in the piece is Adult only.

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By Kathy E. Gill

Digital evangelist, speaker, writer, educator. Transplanted Southerner; teach newbies to ride motorcycles! @kegill

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