This subject is still able to raise the passions. Partisans of self-publishing keep getting furious about traditional publishers reporting sales breakdowns for their industry which exclude the sales of self-published and indie published books. For one of the more sane debates, see this recent post by The Digital Reader. But the fact is you can’t include numbers from outside your industry when you are reporting industry sales. That’s sort of like complaining that theater ticket sales information fails to include information about films. Superficially they look alike, but actually they are different businesses. No doubt there have been too many instances where careless reporters have written about the sales of books as if that was exactly what they were, rather than making it clear that they are merely discussing sales by the (traditional) publishing industry. The partisans’ real beef is with the commentariat, not the publishers.

The publishing industry has over the years developed methods of collecting sales statistics: and they sort of work. Adding into that sales by Kindle, self-publishers, indie publishers, small publishers, etc. is tough. The Data Guy at Author Earnings has made a good attempt at this, and we all agree, I think, that there are lots and lots of e-books being sold by non-traditional publishers, possibly more than by traditional publishers. This Nielsen chart, from a post by Publishing Perspectives, tends to confirm this view.


However to me the big problem with this chart is the catch-all category on the right, “Self published + very small publishers”. The numbers in this column presumably contain sales by all traditional book publishers other than the “Big Five” who have their own column on the left. The center column is clear. The gap between these two groups is immense and full of wild variety. Partisans of self publishing will want to look on this column as being made up mostly of what we now call indie publishers: basically self publishers who publish books by other independent authors. But the Association of American Publishers (AAP) has over 400 members — only 5 of whom are shown in the left hand column of the Nielsen chart. And not every traditional publishing house pays membership dues to AAP, so there are many hundreds of other small independent traditional publishing companies. Let no-one believe that these many publishers didn’t publish any e-books at all! They are all included presumably in the right hand column.

Of course I have no idea of the real numbers behind this chart, and how easy it would be to refine them further, but I do think Nielsen isn’t being very helpful here by eliding the differences between Oxford University Press and say, New Street Communications.

The Independent Book Publishers Association has over 3,000 members, including independent publishers, self-published authors, small presses, and mid-sized publishers. I dare say lots of these people are not wildly keen on sharing their sales data, but we don’t end up having very sensible discussions when we hit each other over the head with incomplete and ill-defined sales numbers.