State of the Computer Book Market 2008, part 5 — eBooks and Summary

In this final post, 1, 2, 3, and 4 were posted earlier, I will provide a summary of the first four posts, provide some insight into a view of top Authors, and include some data on electronic books and how the digital world is catching up to the print world.

So here is the quick summary for posts 1-4.

The market got off to a fast start in 2008 but during July took a nose-dive downward and never recovered. 2008 ended up 8% behind 2007, and there were very few bright spots. There were significantly fewer new titles making it into the Top 3000 reports, which means that more titles that were published before 2008 continued to make the list. Titles that were published in 2008 performed worse than those published in the prior 6 years and only outperformed titles from 2001 and earlier. Apple and its software and hardware [iPhone, iPod, and Mac OS X] had the biggest impact on computer book sales in 2008. Social media development, virtualization and mobile also performed better than in 2007. From a publisher perspective, O’Reilly showed the best gain while Pearson, Wiley, and Microsoft Press lost the most ground. The two Imprints of O’Reilly and Dummies have the most diverse publishing programs due to their strong performance in our six categories. The number one title for 2008 was O’Reilly’s Mac OS X Leopard: The Missing Manual. The number one programming language was C#, with Objective-C and ActionScript showing strong growth in 2008. That’s the quick view.

One of the areas I’m considering for future posts is unit sales performance grouped by author. Let me know if you want more than just the top three authors which I have immediately below. So here is a look at the top three authors based on units sold for books they authored and co-authored, for the past five years.

5-Years 5-Years
Big_3_authors.png Big_3_authors_5years.png

So these three authors were quite a bit ahead of the rest of the pack. Their 23 titles [Pogue-11, Kelby-9, Rathbone-3] that are associated with their name represent .23% of the book market, yet, their units sales represent nearly 6% of the whole computer book market. These authors are the clear leaders in our market.

Now let’s move past print sales in 2008. Or at least partially away from books. The chart immediately below shows eBooks sales in 2008. The data source is found here.

Click on each image to view a larger version.

Trade Stats_04_08.jpg

The Association of American Publishers (AAP) have these caveats to explain the data:

  • eBook sales statistics are collected by the AAP in conjunction with the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF).
  • Trade eBook sales were $6,500,000 for December 2008, a whopping 119.9% increase over December 2007. Calendar Year to Date Revenue is up 68.4%.
  • Just a reminder these are wholesale revenues reported from 13 participating trade publishers.
  • Q4 saw wholesale eBook numbers broke the $14,000,000 barrier and settled in at $16,800,000
  • Total Wholesale sales for 2008 was $52,400,000 for these 13 participating trade publishers…suggesting retail sales around $100,000,000.

I thought it would be interesting to see print book sales plotted against these numbers. Although this is general trade publishing and not just Computer Book publishing, there are some correlations. One is seasonal buying patterns. For the most part, the drops in eBooks also appear in our Computer Book market. Also you will notice a consistent upswing after the mid-year 2005 lull in sales for both types of sales. The next two charts show a couple of views.

This first view is print books in Red overlaid on the chart from above. What this obfuscates is that the scale for print books is much higher. Print sales are in the $50,000,000 to $80,000,000 range and eBook sales are in the $1,000,000 to $17,000,000 range. But the trend lines are the significant part of these charts. eBooks are clearly trending upward and print is flat or trending a bit downward.


This next view more clearly shows what is happening when you compare eBook sales to print sales. So here is what I did. First I added the total revenue per quarter for both print and eBooks to get a total for each type of content. Then I calculated what the percentage of the total each quarter represented for each of the types – eBooks and print. In other words, print sales in Q4 of 2008 were 4.28% of of all print sales in the last 5 years. Similarly, 13.48% of eBooks were sold in Q4 of 2008. Here is the chart showing this view.


Next, I wanted to see if this sort of data is really holding true for O’Reilly as well. So I took a look at our direct sales on and separated out print from eBook+PDF. Then put them into a pie chart here:


Again, this is direct sales on and may or may not represent the computer book market. I have heard from other publishers like the Prags, that this split is consistent with their publishing programs. So I phoned Dave Thomas at the PragProgs and he filled me in on exactly what they are seeing. Roughly 68% of their revenues come from direct sales [combined paper and electronic] and 32% is comes from the traditional retail channel [which sells the physical printed books]. Of their direct sales, 68% is electronic product and 32% is print. How’s that for the changing nature of the computer book market.

I also wanted to look at our subscription service Safari Books Online which has well over 500,000 authorized users. What you will notice in the chart below is the revenue growth per year for Safari [blue], and for the publishers that have print books and had titles consistently available in Safari during the same period, I have labeled those publishers as Safari Print [red] . As you can clearly see, the decline in print has been slowly happening while Safari has maintained a very healthy double-digit growth rate. Do you believe we are at or near a tipping point for the computer book industry? Do developers want content online or a combination of online and print? Or is there a chance that new technological innovation will re-ignite a somewhat stale computer book market?


Thank you for reading these posts. If there is something that you are itching to see [understand more clearly], please let me know and I will try to help. I plan to excerpt updated pieces of these posts on twitter throughout the year. They’ll come from @mikehatora and will likely get RT’ed by @oreillymedia.


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  • I suggest that the computer ebook market is driven by the need for:

    1. The requirement to have a large set of books that are available wherever you are working. For example I own 3 books on GWT alone, but only one can be put in my laptop bag. It would be great to have GWT + javascript + HTML + CSS + …..

    2. Computer books are reference books and benefit hugely from markup and margin notes – I use lots of post-it notes that are exposed as tabs. Being able to search rapidly for a topic is very useful as a memory jog.

    To my mind, this creates real value for ebooks in this domain (I think most textbooks have similar requirements) which is not experienced in the pleasure reading domain.x

  • Thanks for creating this series, Mike. It looks like a lot of work, but it made for a very interesting read.

  • Mike Schreckengost

    As a relatively new subscriber to the Safari service on O’Reilly, I thought that I chime in to say that my initial impressions of the service are very good…for an online reading platform. Having said that, I also still appreciate having an actual “print” copy of many books that I refer to often during project development. I love the new eBook readers like the Amazon Kindle and Sony Reader, but neither device works well for programming and/or other reference materials. My hope is that eventually someone will design an eBook reading platform that can consistently replicate the pages of any one of my “print” manuals. In addition, the ability to add “margin notes,” highlighting, and/or quick jumps to/from the index/appendices would be greatly appreciated (at least by me!) Then — and only then — would I consider it possible to give up my paper bound copies.

  • Agile Cyborg

    Safari link is broken.

  • I bought an iPhone dev book from O’Reilly recently because I noticed that it was DRM-free and thus could read it on Stanza or my Sony Reader. You see, I recently got a Sony Reader and realized that if I want to buy any ebooks from their “official sources”, then I would have to also deal with their DRM and I would probably not be able to read MY book on MY iPhone. While I know how to crack it, I’m not willing to part with my money to support their DRM scheme. Also, I was considering buying a companion ebook from APress, but then I noticed it was a PDF with DRM. If I pay to buy something, then I want to own it and not be restricted with my use of it.

    Another issue is that I have a Mac, so Sony’s DRM doesn’t even work well for me. I must first authorize on a Windows computer and it’s just too many hoops to jump through. So, I’ve settled on buying all my ebooks from DRM-free sources, so I applaud O’Reilly in this regard. In short, I want to say that perhaps what could be helping O’Reilly as opposed to “average” ebook sales is that some consumers will just not put up with DRM and their sales are suffering because of it.

  • An interesting and informative article. Thanks for sharing your good work with us.

  • Extremely insightful and helpful post. I’m in the process of self-publishing and I’ve been debating digital vs. print.

    The profit margins, specifically for color books with over 300 pages (as you would find in most computer related books) leaves one actually owing money if the price is not right.

    Based on this data and other data I’ve come across the level of adoption for digital books is picking and thus it would stand to reason that the focus should be on digital vs. print. Again thanks for the great post.