State of Publishing: E-book Sales by Category and Genre

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

Location: Books & Such main office, Santa Rosa, Calif.

New financial/sales reports are just coming in for publishing for 2010 and the first half of 2011. Now, for those of you who are yawning, I promise to only discuss what’s likely to show important trends that every writer should be aware of. So read up!

Here are the newsworthy items:

  • Fiction remains the leading sales driver of e-books. But the chart below illustrates just how dominant fiction is. The chart on the left is for unit sales; the chart on the right is for revenue generation. What does this add up to? Fiction brings in more than half of e-book revenue, while all other categories are like saplings shaded by a redwood. Why should you care? Because this tells you that, if you’re writing nonfiction and aiming your personal marketing plans toward selling e-books, that might not be the best plan unless you have a special “in” to your market. But if you write fiction, many readers await your e-book.

  • Of the various fiction genres, literary/classics take the lead in unit sales, with science fiction close behind. Holding third place is Christian fiction. We can guess that the classics have the lead position because so many of them are being offered for free or 99 cents for an author’s oeuvre. I own all of Jane Austen’s work and paid 99 cents for the package. Sci-fi makes sense because those who read this genre tend to be purchase technological toys; e-books and sci-fi readers are a perfect fit. But look at Christian fiction, beating out romance, mystery and general fiction.


  • Buyers who purchase e-books online tend to purchase print books from the same source.
  • e-books constituted 4 percent of units sold in 2010.

I’ve suggested one application for the first graphs–where you would place your marketing energy based on what you write. Now, let’s talk about other implications of the study’s results.

  1. Does this information give you pause or renewed energy for the category you write?
  2. In what ways might these numbers help you to direct your marketing energy/dollars? What do the numbers tell you about where your buyers are?
  3. How do you balance this study with the reality that, while e-books are gaining strength very fast, most buyers are hugging their books to their chests rather than clicking “buy” on e-readers?
  4. Unfortunately this study didn’t look at the price paid per unit for e-books. What’s your best guess as to what that might be? What do you base your opinion on? And what are the implications of the unit price for writers?

I know these questions don’t necessarily lend themselves to off-the-top-of-your-head answers, but I believe it’s worth the time for each of us to consider what these numbers mean. They predict the way ahead for all of us.

23 Responses

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  1. Lance Albury says:

    Surprising that the historical genre is not represented in the graph.

  2. I would be very curious to see these figures with all of the free (and $.99) downloads factored out of the equation. I think that seriously skews the findings. It explains the classics, but does it also put Christian fiction higher-than-normal on the chart? It seems like many Christian publishers have jumped on this marketing technique.

    I have downloaded many of these freebies, but have only read a few of them. I am more likely to sit down and read a book that I’ve paid for and hold the freebies for another time.

    So, I’m really curious to see which books people are paying to read on their e-readers. Is there a way to do that?

  3. Lynn Dean says:

    Very interesting! The interest in Christian fiction ebooks is encouraging, but as you imply, price paid per unit is a significant factor.

    Within genres, Amazon allows shoppers to sort by price. There are pages and pages of possibilities under $5. Some are special offers of traditionally published works, but many are self-published works (and that number is growing). One lure is that self-published authors keep 70% of the purchase price they set. Granted it would take a LOT of sales to match even a modest contract advance, but shelf life is unlimited, giving hopefuls time to beat the long odds and accrue significant royalties.

    Of course, readers rather than publishers vet self-pubbed works. It remains to be seen whether they will patiently discover the quality stories at lower prices, or whether they will stick with known publishers and pay more. Does the average reader check out the publisher, or do most base their selections on price and cover appeal?

    I have noticed a number of reviewers slamming traditionally published authors because of the higher price set by their publishing house. Do traditionally published authors garner a higher percentage on ebooks than they do on paperbacks where there are higher production costs and risk for the publisher? If not, it would seem that they stand to lose disproportionately when their ebooks go on sale and suffer in the ratings if they do not. Can they and will they continue to create for a small slice of the profit as ebooks grow in appeal?

  4. Janet Grant says:

    Lance, leaving out historical does seem strange, doesn’t it, since it’s such a significant genre.
    Karen, that’s a very good point about the freebies and 99-cent e-book offerings. I suspect Christian fiction probably would rank higher, if those were removed from the equation.
    Apparently individuals are reading those give-away e-books because publishers can point to increased sales on an author’s other e-titles after a period of offering one book for free.
    Lynn, currently I don’t think most people who download titles look to see the name of the publisher before making the decision, but as more self-pubbed books flood the market, I suspect a traditional publisher’s name will become an imprimatur for buyers.
    Authors generally do receive a higher royalty for e-books than physical books, but the royalty rate for e-books hasn’t settled into anything that could be considered standard yet. Agents are pressuring publishers to pay more for e-book sales. At this point, for each e-book sale, an author makes less than would be made on most hardback and trade versions of the same book.

  5. Excellent topic and discussion. My Kindle currently has 41 free titles that I scooped up from Amazon. Now, some of those were for research purposes, but the majority are either classics like Sherlock Holmes or Christian fiction. I definitely think the sales and free eBooks skew the data. That said, you also need to promote a sale to sway potential readers.

    We have a client who puts his eBooks on sale whenever he is running a virtual book tour to promote a particular book. Readers are doubly enticed when they read a positive review of the book during a tour and then find the book on sale.

    This data, however, is very important to my marketing plan because juvenille fiction remains a low eBook seller, which says people are still investing in printed books for kids. My book comes in both formats, so when I am interacting with this market, my softcovers are probably the way to go.

    What I think will be even more interesting is what happens when these juvenille readers grow up and have kids of their own. Will their book buying decisions alter those stats and find juvenille and YA eBooks with a larger share of the market than they have now?

    Thanks for such a thought-provoking start to the week.

  6. Sarah Thomas says:

    This is so interesting! I would have guessed that non-fiction would be slower to sell via e-book. Gotta be able to write in those books and the e-book equivalent for highlighting, underlining and marginalia just isn’t the same.

  7. I would imagine, and that is all I can do – imagine, the free to $0.99 purchases toss a significant curveball into these statistics. Either way, this is a very interesting read. Thanks.

  8. I wonder if the percentage of authors who self-publish in each genre also impacts the numbers. Self-pubbed writers tend to sell their ebooks at a lower price than do traditional publishers. So, for example, if more scifi writers choose to self-publish, it could result in greater variety, at better prices, and larger sales as compared to thriller writers.

  9. Peter DeHaan says:

    The last bullet point says “e-books constituted 4 percent of units sold in 2010”

    Unless, I am missing something doesn’t that mean that printed books were 96 percent of units sold in 2010?

    Also, non-fiction only accounts for 10% of ebook sales, so them non-fiction ebooks only accounts for .4% of the units sold.


  10. Janet Grant says:

    Cheryl, as soon as someone comes up with an affordable device to deliver books to young readers, those numbers will change dramatically. I predict we won’t need to wait for the current junior readers to grow up for that to happen. The landscape is changing very quickly. (As you’ll see when you read my blog for tomorrow, which reports on sales for the first six months of 2011.)
    Marcy, I think you’re right that the number of self-published title in each genre could skew these stats significantly.
    Peter, you are correct to point to these stats as significant. But before you draw any conclusions, read my blog for tomorrow, when I talk about the most current numbers.

  11. Larry Carney says:

    I am quite glad that literary / classic fiction has garnered the top spot, though I would have preferred it contemporary fiction were seperated from classic fiction.

    I wonder why the 99 cent price point is being described as throwing the curve. Why haven’t writers and industry professionals accepted that it is simply a standard price point in this new market? There are readers who won’t purchase anything higher than it, and there are writers who base their careers on it. It would be like saying one cannot gauge how many actual readers there are, because too many read genre fiction istead of “true” literature. Rather than bemoan it, the industry must learn to adapt.

  12. You’re probably right, Janet. When we stopped by the Apple store in the mall last weekend, I was trying to figure out how to work their iPad. My daughter had her model playing music before I could scroll through the first screen. 🙂

  13. Janet Grant says:

    Larry, if an author self-publishes e-books, maybe the 99 cents is a basis for making a profit, but for authors who are publishing with a traditional publisher, 99 cents is equivalent to giving the book away. Speaking of which, I can’t recall any traditional publisher selling an e-book for 99 cents. They literally are giving the books away instead. It’s a financial model that doesn’t work for publishers, Larry, and it’s not that great of a model for authors. Amazon chooses to reward authors for selling their books for more than that, which should speak volumes to the direction Amazon wants this to go in the future. And, really? You want to sell your book for 99 cents? I can’t see the industry accepting this because it’s financial suicide. As it is for most authors.

  14. I think people are more likely to buy e-books if they only expect to read something once and hard copies if they want to be able to read or refer to it again in the future. That would help explain why non-fiction doesn’t sell as well in e-book format. We all know anything technological will become obsolete in a few years.

  15. Before e-books (I’m old enough to remember) I would wait until a book went into paperback before instead of buying it at the hardback price. It was easier on the budget. If it was a title I would keep on the shelf, I would splurge on a hardback copy. The library was my out for books I wanted to read and not pay for. I’m wondering if the e-lending affects sales any since at some point e-books will probably be deleted from my library after purchase and reading? E-lending is quite easy and I’ve run into some people who haven’t bought an e-book yet.

  16. Lynn Dean says:

    I wonder how it would work if ebook versions were released first. Sales response might be a good indicator of how many paper copies to print on a first run, resulting in less waste and returns. In some cases, it might be that a story would never “earn” the right to be printed in a paper format. That would be disappointing, certainly, but far less disappointing than a financial flop where everyone loses money.

    That would probably be a radical strategy at the present time since e-readers are still new and paper books are easier to market, but in a few more years the landscape may change, especially if ebooks become multi-media attractions that could carry their own unique appeal.

  17. Rich Bullock says:

    As a long-time reader of ebooks (nearly exclusively now), I can think of at least a half-dozen instances in the last 2 years where I’ve bought the first of a series at a discount (or free) and got hooked. In one case, I bought two more 3-book series from one author based on how much I liked the first one. In a couple instances, I paid $9.99 or so from Amazon for the latest because I couldn’t wait–and I NEVER would have bought that book in hardback in the same situation.

    I believe two things will happen soon: 1. ebooks in shorter format (still novel) will cater to the reading public’s taste for smaller bites (similar to how chapters are getting shorter). One thing about ebooks, it’s hard to tell how long they are. 2. New writers will tailor content to readers more than they are able to with print format where there aren’t too many options. We’re already seeing the beginnings of interactive, alternate endings, free prequels, etc.

    The possibilities are endless. What a cool time to be a writer!

  18. Erica says:


    I enjoy YA books, suspense and Christian Fiction. I am guessing that Amish Fiction may have pushed up the numbers for eBook and otherwise? Not sure.


  19. Larry Carney says:

    “Speaking of which, I can’t recall any traditional publisher selling an e-book for 99 cents.”

    That’s exactly what I mean about the industry needing to adapt. People in this industry often decry the lack of readers, but at $10 or $20 a book, a lot of folks are simply priced out.

    If I remember correctly, Amazon gives their authors 70% of the retail price. You are correct in saying that seventy cents doesn’t sound like much, yet what is the current return on a traditional paper back for an author? I gather that depending on the publisher it is between seven and fifteen percent.

    If an author even gets a modest market through Amazon I do not see why they could do as good, or even better, than the vast majority of mid-list authors out there.

  20. Amazon, iBooks, and Nook commissions for eBook sales
    They pay ~ 70% for ebooks priced at $2.99 and higher, and 35% for eBooks priced at 99 cents to $2.99. John Locke first Kindle independent author to sell 1 million eBooks via Kindle. Every 7 seconds one of his 99 cents Kindle books are sold, 24 hours a day. It’s interesting, do the math and it’s amazing. I find it interesting that all these ‘new’ rules are measured by old publishing standards. It’s a new paradigm – so creative and filled with opportunity. Following this ‘book revolution’ requires new vocabulary and flexible reasoning. The ‘new rules’ are formed by the buyers not the publishers.. bottom up …and all that. Thanks for you wonderful blog and all the intelligent comments. wtg!

  21. […] U.S. Book Consumer Demographics & Buying Behaviors Annual Review in the following blog post:…CommentLoading… • Post • 10:21am  Add […]

  22. […] more and more new genre readers to our flock. For example, as a portion of digital book sales, Science Fiction was second only to Literary Fiction in 2010. We are on the cusp of a change in literature, the audiences of literature and its means of […]

  23. Peter Lazar says:

    Each buyer has a price sweet spot for ebooks, as well as hardcopy, which further varies with genre. In the market consisting of people with different sweetpoints, there is a statistical or optimal market price for each genre. I believe the quality basis for price on things like scifi, romance and mystery is a little overblown. I have been devouring competitively priced ebooks by less well known authors and have repeatedly found myself wondering why I never read them before. Some how it seems finding that price sweet spot is critical to optimizing REVENUE in the ebook business with hardcopy having a different optimization result due to the additional publishing cost restraint. I believe based on my own behavior that some authors are killing themselves in the ebook area by over pricing. Why on Earth would I buy a Clive Cusler novel in ebook for a greater price than I can get the hardcover? Based on history of eloctronic file formats, it is unlikely you will be able to read your epub in 25 years, but I have 50 year old hardcopy Asimov and Norton classics. I consider buying epubs as somewhere between paperback and magazine, the do not have the enduring value of hardcopy and don’t deserve the price parity, so I resist.