State of the Computer Book Market 2008, Part 1: The Market

As described in Computer Book Sales as a Technology Trend Indicator, and our other posts on the State of the Computer Book Market we have an updated series of posts that show the whole market’s final 2008 numbers. Remember this data is from Bookscan‘s weekly top 3,000 titles sold. Bookscan measures actual cash register sales in bookstores. Simply put, if you buy a book in the United States, there’s a high probability it will get recorded in this data. Retailers such as Borders, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon make up the lion’s share of these sales.

Book Market Performance

Before we get to the specifics of the computer book market, let’s get some context by looking at the whole book market for the Week ending 12/28/2008. Everything that is printed, bound and sold like a book, from Harry Potter and The Tales of Beedle the Bard to Breaking Dawn and Outliers is represented in the table below.

Overall Book Market – EVERYTHING -Week Ending: 2008-12-28

Category Sales ‘000’s Share YoY
Adult Non-Fiction 10,411 36% 25%
Adult Fiction 6,185 22% 18%
Juvenile Non-Fiction 1,422 5% 84%
Juvenile Fiction 6,271 22% 72%
Other 4,264 15% 8%
Computers 151 1% -8%
Total 28,553 100% 30%

As you can see, the computer market is only 1% of total unit sales in bookstores and online retailers. The Computer category was the only category down [-8%] year-over-year.

Immediately below is the year-on-year trend for the entire computer book market since 2004, when we first obtained reliable data from Bookscan. Please remember the data is for all publishers and NOT just O’Reilly. The slightly-thicker red line represents the 2008 data.

Computer Book Market  - 2004-2008

Click on the image to get a larger view.

As you can see, the clear seasonal pattern we’ve pointed out before still exists. That is, we have a strong start that declines through the summer, spikes for the Fall ‘Back to School season’ and finishes strong. The trend line for each year closely mirrors the year before, with remarkably consistent weekly ups and downs.

What you won’t see on this chart is that the computer book market cratered in 2001, shrinking twenty percent a year for three years until it stabilized in 2004 at about half the size that it was in 2000. (We only have reliable data going back to 2004.) We are hoping that the cratering we experienced in the second half of 2008 will not be as pronounced or long as 2001 because the current economic conditions are not squarely for computer books centered around Tech. That being said, 2008 was the worst performing year since we’ve been collecting the Bookscan data. The chart immediately below shows total units by year for the Computer book category. As you can see, 2008 was the worst year for unit sale in the computer book market.

Computer Book Market - Overall Units by Year

So what was the news in 2008? The year got off to healthy start, but around July the sales trended downward and for the remainder of the year never rose above the equivalent week in 2007. In the first half of 2008, the Market was up 67,000 units compared to 2007 but in the second half, 417,000 fewer units were sold in 2007 — so the overall market decreased by 350,000 units. The majority of this shortfall happened during the fourth quarter of 2008 where nearly 300,000 fewer units were sold.

Another way to look at the market is with our Treemap visualization tool. This tool helps us pick up on trends quickly, even when looking at thousands of books. It works like this:

The size of a square shows the market share and relative size of a category, while the color shows the rate of change in sales. Red is down, and green is up, with the intensity of the color representing the magnitude of the change. The following screenshot of our treemap shows gains and losses by category, comparing the fourth quarter of 2008 with the fourth quarter of 2007.

Treemap Computer Book Market - Quarter 4 2008

So what are all the boxes and colors telling us? First remember this is comparing the last quarter of 2008 with the last quarter of 2007. This snapshot of the treemap looks like a blood bath — which again shows that in the fourth quarter of 2008 the computer book market took a significant beating. There were very few brights spots [bright green] during the last quarter of 2008. In the fourth quarter of 2007, Microsoft’s Vista was finally getting some success in the market and topics on Web 2.0 were emerging and selling well. Those topics have now cratered, any “silver lining” found 2008 is thanks to Apple.

For the whole of 2008, Mac OS was the number one growth area for units, followed by Mobile Phone [iPhone] followed by Social Media, and Mac Programming. Apple has enjoyed an amazing ride the past few years and, in my opinion, for good reasons. Another area to watch is the RIA space, with entries from Adobe [Flex/Flash/Air] and Microsoft [Silverlight]. Silverlight has gone from a spec on the Treemap to a fair-sized bright green box. Its appearance and growth is reminiscent of Sharepoint a few years back.

I find it useful to organize the trends into classifications that are High Growth Categories [Bright Green], Moderate Growth Categories [Dark Green to Black], Categories to Watch [all colors], and Down Categories [Red to Bright Red]. Most of these descriptions are self-explanatory except perhaps the Categories to Watch. This group contains titles that we’ve found are not typically susceptible to seasonal swings,as well as areas that we have are on our editorial Radar. If there are categories you want to get on our watch list, please let me know.

The table below highlights and explains some of the data from the chart above, although the data below is for all of 2008. The Share column shows the total market share of that category, and the ROC column shows the Rate of Change. So, for example, you can see that Mac OS books represent 4.07% of the entire computer book market, and were up 28.70%.

High Growth Share ROC Notes
Mac Programming 0.46% 85.23% Small catgory led by several titles centered on Cocoa and Objective C for developing iPhone Apps.
Virtualization 0.25% 62.66% Small category that saw 10 new 2008 titles on Vmware and VMware Infrastructure.
Mobile Phone 1.28% 57.47% Good-size category led by six new 2008 titles on the iPhone.
Computers and Society 0.84% 54.16% Small and volitile category with 44% new titles; 15% less than last year. Titles don’t live long in the area.
Social Web 1.02% 49.70% Decent-size catgory led by Blogging and Wiki books; WordPress leads with six titles.
Moderate Growth Share ROC Notes
Web Site Topics 1.03% 36.35% Good-size category where 36 new titles appeared and 25 dropped out. Led by Web Analytics, Joomla, and Drupal.
Mac OS 4.07% 28.70% Fairly large category with a monster book in Pogue’s Mac OS X Leopard: The Missing Manual which sold three times as many units as the #2 book.
C# 1.58% 26.76% Solid category with 43 new titles and only 19 fell out of the space. O’Reilly has 4 out of 10 bestsellers. Surprisingly, MS Press had only 1 title in the top ten.
Collaboration 1.33% 4.75% Solid category dominated by Sharepoint titles. 25 new titles, and 13 fell out of the rankings.
Categories to Watch Share ROC Notes
Office Suites 2.87% 13.26% Decent-size category dominated by 74 new Office 2007 [PC] and 2008 [Mac] titles while 23 Office 2000, and 2003 titles finally fell out of category.
Digital Photography 6.91% 1.01% Large category with 5 titles selling more than 20k units; 76 new tiles moved into the category and 109 [mostly CS2] titles fell out of the rankings.
Spreadsheets 4.48% -8.49% Large category with 9 titles selling more than 10k units; 26 new Excel 2007 titles and 3 fell out.
Rich Web Interface 4.61% -10.81% Large category dominated by ActionScript (3), Flash (3) and Javascript (3) in the top ten. But only 3 titles topped 10k units.
Down Categories – Not Hot Topics Share ROC Notes
Web Page Creation 4.77% -15.57% Large category with 42 new titles published but 30 that fell out of the rankings. 4 of the top 5 titles sold fewer units in 2008 than in 2007.
Windows Consumer 6.68% -22.65% Large category with 9 out of the top 10 titles selling fewer units in 2008 than in 2007; 30 new titles and 57 titles fell out of the rankings.
Linux 1.38% -22.78% Decent-size category with the middle of the pack failing. Titles selling 2k-3k units dropped to the 600-700 range. 27 new titles, 26 that fell out.
Microsoft Programming 1.33% -25.05% Decent size category with the middle of the pack failing. Titles selling 2k-3k units dropped to the 600-700 range. 30 new titles, 32 that fell out.
iPod + iTunes 1.25% -37.95% Decent size category with the 2 of the top 5 titles accounting for 30k fewer units between them than they sold in 2007. 8 new titles and 8 that fell out of the rankings.

Part two of this series will give a closer look at the technologies within the categories. Part three will be about the publishers, winners and losers. And part four will contain more analysis of programming languages.

  • Steve

    That’s a lot of data to sort through. MAC related material seems to have an edge. I’m surprised Linux is down and ipod+itunes down to that extent. Smart phones’ momentum doesn’t seem to be slowing. I bet security products are expanding with growing awareness and product focus like in Windows 7, stuff like found on this security information site.

  • I’m assuming that this data from Bookscan does not cover data from online services like Safari Books and Books 24×7.

    I think it will be for interesting and accurate to incorporate data from these services for later posts in the series.

  • Such a very informative post. Well, I think Computer Book Market is a reliable database that shows the exact sales of books sold within the year. The performance and presentation of recorded data seems to be so accurate and detailed as well.

  • Looking at the first bar chart, it appears as if 2008 is about one half of 2009. Are the figures for all of the year or just the 4th quarter? In numbers, what were the total computer book sales for 2007 and 2008, and what was the percentage change? Thanks.

  • @Fred Brown [02.22.09 01:19 PM]

    The scale is 6.8 million units up to 7.8 million. So it looks a bit mis-leading although that was not then intention. The 2008 number was 7.1 and the high number was 7.5 in 2006.

  • mjt

    Informative article – thanks!

    As an author myself (“Inside Linux” and a couple
    of C++ books), I’ve found an interesting trend,
    which is very obvious – If I participate in the
    public eye (such as USENET), book sales go up.

    However, what I think is happening with the trend
    in “technical” books sales is the fact that tech
    type folks are utilizing the Internet more as a
    technical reference (compared to opening a book
    as has been traditionally been done).

    I can vouch for this myself – I literally have
    bookshelves of technical books that I haven’t
    cracked in years and I can’t tell you the last
    time I’ve wondered the bookstore’s technical
    section (which used to be a once-a-week ritual).

    Time-to-market is also a consideration. By the
    time a tech book (most) hits the market, much
    of the content in it is “outdated”. This, of
    course, depends on the subject matter. To use
    “Inside Linux” as an axample, the distros I
    exampled were already outdated by the time the
    book hit the shelves and the reviewers’ hands
    (although the general information is still valid).

    What I predict, and which I think this article
    espouses, is that the Internet is the new tech
    reference, and most [future] tech books will be
    “purchased” for online access or via a PDF

    Regards, M. Tobler, author, “Inside Linux”

  • I also have to wonder how much of these trends are being driven by what publishers are choosing to offer. As a self-proclaimed nerd, I’ve been kind of dissapointed to see O’Reilly degrade from seriously nerdy book topics and excellent general-category “Hacks” books (e.g. “Wireless Hacks”) down to “SpecificProprietaryProduct 2008 Personal Trainer” and “Head-First™ Funny Bobblehead Guy Guide” types of publications.

    It’s no surprise that Linux books would drop – in addition to the use of the Internet for Linux information, the Linux book market has also been hit by the same horrible trend and seems to now be dominated by “Specific Brand Name” books (“Ubuntu Hacks”, “Red Hat” books, etc.).

    P.S. When the heck will there be a second edition of the excellent but now quite dated “Mapping Hacks”?

  • nottoday

    It’s called outsourcing / insourcing. in 1999, I spent about 100 a week on computer books at my local technical bookstore in San Diego.

    I noticed that the developers who were living 5 to a room and sending all their money to heir home countries spent about zero per week.

    In 2002 I noticed that those same developers were in the habit of downloading “free” versions of books they needed from the web, where “free” really means “illegal / stolen”.

    The population that spends money on computer books no longer have jobs to speak of.

    Everyone has to make a sacrifice for globalization. That includes book publishers. Remember this: if the country of your buyers doesn’t buy (legal) software, they’re sure as hell not going to buy books.

    I know it warms my heart to think at night how much I personally have assisted India’s economy by giving up my job. Probably 20 programmers have found excellent careers in India, thanks to me alone. Of course, the buyers of their services aren’t necessarily as thrilled, but they made their bed, didn’t they?

    That same thought keeps me motivated as I strike out into the 1:10000 chance of success world of starting my own company, since, after all according to my employer’s reviews, I am a top-gun programmer.

    Best of luck finding a business model in our new, unregulated, no rule of law world.

    I’ll see you on the road I’m sure, fellow traveler.