Business Musings: Reading and Ebooks (2020 in Review)

Business Musings

Believe it or not, there’s some great news in 2020. Reading became cool again. With all the other distractions shut down and people stuck inside, they picked up the books they had set aside because they were busy with other things.

Most publishers and writers made it easy for readers in the early part of the pandemic, by offering a lot of free content to lure readers back into the fold. Readers swarmed in. The statistics are all over the map, literally, because most of the services here in the U.S. only report traditional publishing numbers.

Not everyone reports their numbers and no one has reported fourth quarter figures because the fourth quarter is still continuing as I write this. The ebook sales in the second quarter of 2020 were at an all-time high for both traditional publishers and indie (self) publishers.

I have mostly anecdotal information about indies, because we don’t have any way of truly tracking overall sales. Amazon doesn’t release its numbers and they’re the biggest player in the room at the moment, at least here in the U.S.

Other reports are almost laughably wrong in their interpretation. Most articles I’ve found in traditional media (online news organizations) report that the “The pandemic has revived the fortunes of the consumer ebook.” That particular sentence is from The Guardian in the UK, and quite frankly, their statistics are correct…for traditional publishing, which did everything it could to destroy the ebook format.

Ebook sales have continued to grow since the format got a boost from the invention of the Kindle more than 10 years ago. The indie side of digital publishing is so huge that Bertelsmann used what statistics it could find to “prove” that they wouldn’t be taking over too much of the publishing marketplace if they absorb Simon & Schuster.

Estimates coming from outside agencies show that Bertelsmann would control almost 50% of the trade book marketplace, which is to say, the traditional book marketplace. Others claim that it would “only” be 1/3 of the marketplace, which is still too much for U.S. regulators to approve the deal.

To get around all of that, Bertelsmann acknowledge self-publishing for the very first time (without some snide sideways comment). If you include the self-publishing numbers, Bertelsmann says, their merger would only control 18.4% of the market, placing it within the guidelines for regulators to approve the deal.

Think about this for a moment. Somewhere Bertelsmann’s people found statistics that show that self publishing is vast and huge and would decrease a market share from 50% (or 30%) to about 18%. That’s significant.

What’s more significant is that all of those numbers are probably wrong. Except the 50%. Writers who want to go the traditional route will have very few publishers to choose from in the very near future. Of course, those writers would never consider self publishing. Ah, poor babies. I hate watching people line up to be screwed. (Sigh.)

Anyway. Right now, there’s no one tracking all of the book sales out there, not that there ever were. But what numbers we’re getting are great.

Book sales increased dramatically in 2020, and the bulk of that was ebooks. The closest information we can get that has any kind of accuracy comes from Overdrive.

It reports that U.S. consumers downloaded a metric shit-ton of books from libraries in 2020. What’s a metric shit-ton? Well, 366 million digital downloads from January to November of 2020. That’s 40 million more than 2019, and there’s one month left to go in the year.

That’s ebook downloads from libraries. Sales are harder to track. NPD Bookscan reports that book sales, print and ebook, are up 7.7% this year. In reporting this, Mark Williams of the New Publishing Standard notes:

A key point of interest here being the reference to ebooks, a format that, in recent years pre-pandemic only ever made the headlines in some derisory context, usually accompanied by nonsense about “screen fatigue”.

Hardcover sales are up in traditional publishing, based mostly on some blockbuster books this fall…books that were purchased, not in brick and mortar stores, but online.

If you actually look at the sales figures coming in from traditional publishers, you’ll see that their ebook sales have risen dramatically, in some cases tipping the book sales revenue model into the black for the bigger publishers. (I’m not going to link to this. The numbers are still coming in and you can find them in Publisher’s Weekly, Publishing Perspectives, and other places.)

For example, if you scroll through The Good eReader website, you’ll find headlines that say things like “Ebook sales up 39% in June 2020” (that’s over the previous year) and “Ebook sales up 20.4% in October” and on and on.

I’m not sure where the Good eReader gets their numbers, and I’m too lazy at this point in the series to doublecheck. But those feel right to me. (Okay, yeah, that’s not scientific, but give me a break. I’m ready for some cookies.)

It looks to me like all of his numbers come from traditional publishing. Even so, this gives us some statistics. From his December 14, 2020 report:

Digital book revenues were up 20.4% for the month as compared to October of 2019 for a total of $96.9 million. On a year-to-date basis, ebook sales were up 16.5%, generating $956.3 million for the first ten months of 2020. This format has seen tremendous growth this year, as thousands of bookstores were closed during the global pandemic and people started to buy ebooks online. Ebooks accounted for 10% of all trade sales for the month.


Ebooks are where indies thrive. We are seeing increased sales, not just in standard venues like Amazon, Kobo, Apple, and the others, but in sites that don’t report as actual book sales. From the beginning of the pandemic forward, WMG’s personal sales on its own website have grown dramatically. Our sales through are the best in years. We have sold a lot more books through Kickstarter than we have in previous years.

The cool thing about ebooks is this: once people start reading ebooks, they don’t stop. Sure, they might have another preferred format. Most still prefer paper books, but now they know that they can get a book immediately if they need to read it Right Now. That’s huge.

I can’t wait to see the statistics in about six months, about ebook growth. I know it’ll be there. You can’t bring in this many new readers into the format and not see it reflected in the growth statistics six months from now.

I suspect 2020 will be a watershed year on the digital front, one that we will look back on and say “This was the moment everything changed.” That’s certainly going to be the case with streaming film and TV, and books are similar.

I will write about the future of all of that in a month or so. I’m trying to clear 2020 from my brain first.

But there is some good news in our industry…and it’s the explosive growth of books. (For context, traditional publishing usually grows [in good years] about 4%. 7.7% is phenomenal.)

We writers provide an escape, and often, an inexpensive escape. We’ve all needed to escape a lot this year.

Pats on the back to anyone who finished and published a book this year, and who has a lot of backlist easily available. You’ve helped out more people than you will ever know.

And that’s also good news from 2020.



I have one more major topic to cover as I try to grapple with this earth-shattering year. I have written all of these posts in the same week, because really, who wants to think about 2020 any more than you have to? You’ll be able to read all of them on my Patreon page in the next few weeks, or one per week here on the website.

I will probably put other posts in-between some of these, particularly if there’s truly important industry news, or I feel we need a break from the memories of this unreal year.

As soon as I finish this, I’m going to sketch out a few (tentative) thoughts about 2021, and post those a bit slower. I’ll still put those up on Patreon first.

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“Business Musings: Reading and Ebooks,” copyright © 2021 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / Leaf.


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