Giving E-books a Spot on the Charts

  • Share
  • Read Later
Illustration by Mark Nerys

Will 2010 be the year of the e-book? With Apple's iPad, Amazon's Kindle and Barnes & Noble's Nook and a host of other e-devices now on the market, readers have more alternatives to old-fashioned paper and ink than ever. And as a result, digital sales are soaring: the Association of American Publishers reports that e-book sales jumped 207% in the first five months of this year, and on July 19, Amazon announced that it now sells more Kindle e-books than it does hardcover volumes.

But don't bother looking for your favorite e-title on a bestsellers list: With the exception of USA Today, national print lists don't track e-books or include their revenues in sales figures. With these digital downloads now accounting for more than 8% of the total consumer book market, though, that's going to start changing soon. "We're certainly looking at it really closely, and will find some way, I think, to inform readers about e-book sales," says Sam Tanenhaus, editor of the influential New York Times Book Review. "But what kind of list it will be, at this point, is undecided."

The stakes are high for publishers and readers. There's no better sales gimmick than being able to slap the words "bestselling author" on an ad. Readers look to bestsellers lists to find out what's hot in the bookstore; with thousands of titles jostling for attention being No. 1 is just about the most important honorific a book can receive. And authors often get bonuses when their books make it onto the lists.

But as publications with bestseller lists try to figure out how to include e-books in their tallies, they have discovered that there are as many questions as there are titles. Should e-books have a list of their own? If the same book comes in hardcover and digital form, should the sales figures be combined — even though e-books are much cheaper? Should the numerous free e-books, from small-market original titles such as All Tied Up: Pleasure Inn to public-domain standards like Pride and Prejudice — be included on the list at all? (For its part, USA Today rather unconventionally puts paid e-books, hardcovers and paperbacks — both fiction and nonfiction — on one list. "We've always wanted our list to very simply tell readers what the most popular titles are that week," says editor Anthony DeBarros.)

The biggest problem for media outlets is whether e-book sellers will be forthcoming with the needed numbers. While Amazon makes its book rankings public, it is reluctant to share figures on total unit sales or revenues. "In the digital world, led by Amazon, they are hypersensitive about sharing any data whatsoever," says Jim Milliot, Publishers Weekly's co-editorial director. "Not that the book industry is great [in that regard]." Amazon, Apple and Google (which will publish e-books later this year), "like to control the way their data is portrayed," says Michael Cader, founder of the industry newsletter Publishers Lunch.

Amazon has created two of its own e-book bestseller lists, one for free e-books and one for paid ones. The online retail giant divided the list into two after publishers complained that Amazon was unfairly giving an advantage to free e-books that weren't really on the market. (Sniffs Milliot, "It's not hard to give away things.")

More of that sort of cooperation from e-book sellers could go a long way toward resolving the issue. It's hardly as though adding e-books to print bestseller lists would violate some sacred science of record-keeping. Each publication has a unique alchemy for creating its list, with different bookstores reporting their sales by different means, often resulting in a wide variation in rankings from publication to publication. And experts say that excluding the new format leads to a distorted sense of what's popular with the public. Says Cader, "It's quite clear that the bestselling books in e-book format can move a lot of units in a week. There is a significant stream of data that's not being captured through standard industry sources." As Kindles, iPads and Nooks multiply, more listmakers may decide the time has come to end the digital divide.