May 24

Tim O'Reilly

Tim O'Reilly

Number of books sold vs. published

The Salt Lake Tribune reports (to me via StudioB mailing list): "According to a report issued by the Book Industry Study Group, the number of books sold dropped by nearly 44 million from 2003 to 2004, while the number of books published per year approaches 175,000. 'Higher prices enabled net revenues to increase 2.8 percent, to $28.6 billion, but also drove many readers, especially students, to buy used books...' After 2005, markets are expected to be flat with the exception of religious books."

On reading this message, O'Reilly Associate Publisher for Consumer Books Mark Brokering waggishly remarked "Good thing we're covering the religions of Mac and Linux." On a more serious note, both overpublishing and too-high prices (especially for textbooks) are very much on our radar. High textbook prices (and the opportunity to disrupt that overpriced market) was one of the driving factors behind our introduction of SafariU.

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Comments: 16

  Owen Linderholm [05.24.05 10:33 AM]

As I recall, several studies have also supported the theory that a rise in religious book sales and a fall in other book sales are an almost perfect indicator of an economic downturn. So this is ominous news.

  Tim O'Reilly [05.24.05 11:33 AM]

Actually, all of our indicators for the tech book market show an upturn is in progress, so I think that the fall in book sales this time is from competition with other sources of reference and entertainment.

  Kevin Bedell [05.24.05 11:40 AM]

Does this imply that publishing books on the Net (potentially under CC-type licensing) won't necessarily drive down sales?

If those who can afford it less aren't going to buy new books anyway, maybe it makes sense to try to derive ad dollars (web page views) from their usage. Publishing free copies on the web allows this.

Also, it sounds like those that are buying new books prefer having new books to owning used. It seems to follow that they'd also prefer having a new book to having a printed version of a PDF they downloaded.

Would the marketing boost provided by putting out a book on the Net for a free download (PDF or HTML) under a CC/Non-Commercial license outweigh the potential for lost new book sales? Would those readers who buy new books end up buying the new book anyway?

  Rex [05.24.05 11:47 AM]

44 million looks like a lot, but 2,295,000,000 books are still sold every year, so how significant a decline is this?

  Phil [05.24.05 12:17 PM]

As someone who is just finishing up with grad school and who financed some living expenses by visiting GoodWill outlet stores in search of used textbooks to sell on Amazon... I've been on both sides of the textbook pricing issue.

The textbook companies have priced themselves out of the market charging high premiums for new editions that offer little new material when compared to older editions. Often you can get by with a 3rd edition book even when the class calls for a 4th or 5th edition, for example. And you end up saving big $$.

College students have very limited budgets - the textbook publishers seems to have forgotten this.
Maybe this is an opportunity for some publisher to come in and offer reasonably priced textbooks by doing things like skipping hard covers, etc.?
SafariU sounds like a step in the right direction, this is the first I've heard of it.

BTW: Why is it that you can often buy technical books and textbooks for pennies on the dollar in other countries like India? Same books. Same publishers, but instead of $50 the prices are more like $5. Do publishers conciously take 'ability to pay' into account when they set pricing in different countries? Why not take the American Student's ability to pay into account then?

  Tim O'Reilly [05.24.05 12:38 PM]

Rex: it's a 1.9% decline.

Kevin: It's hard to get definitive answers to the amount that free content online affects the sales of print books. There are just too many variables in the experiment. Sometimes, free content on the web helps put an author or a book on the map -- The Cathedral and the Bazaar (55,000 copies sold since 1999) or Hackers and Painters (16,000 since last May) are two good examples.

In other cases, with books like The Linux Network Administrator's Guide (66,000 copies since 1994), we had nice sales, but by comparison with other books like Running Linux (500,000+ copies sold) or Linux in a Nutshell (several hundred thousand), or even a more specialized title like Linux Device Drivers (88,000 since 1998) or Understanding the Linux Kernel (79,000 since 2000), we infer that this very strong and highly rated book sold fewer copies because of the availability of freely available copies.

Our most successful book/online hybrid has been what we've done with Perl. The authors of the perl man pages and the authors of Programming Perl (500,000+ copies since 1991) have tended to be one and the same, and content has migrated between the two. But because the form factor is not identical, there was no negative impact on sales.

  Owen [05.25.05 11:06 AM]

Tim - that's actually very good news since it counterbalances the religious books on the rise theory, but I also think that you are one of the publishers at the forefront of prising publishing away from its traditional, slow, New York-centric model and feeling your way to a continuum of publishing that includes electronic formats - so you are protected from traditional publishing market vagaries a little I suspect. Plus, quality will out and you have that in spades.

I think we are at the beginning of all kinds of changes in publishing and this is one of the places that you'll see the changes first.

  Dean [05.25.05 01:01 PM]

"On a more serious note, both overpublishing and too-high prices (especially for textbooks) are very much on our radar."

I live in Canada. O'Reilly books are the most expensive ones on the shelf. I don't know how many times I've picked one up intending to buy, only to put it down again when I check the price.

I'm a little surprised to hear that too-high prices are a concern for you.

(Good books though.)

  Tim O'Reilly [05.25.05 09:57 PM]

Dean --

I'll look into your assertion. If you're right, it could be something about the exchange rate that's used, since in the US market, we are most certainly not the highest priced publisher. In fact, we are often chided by booksellers for having a premium product at lower-than-average prices.

I'm looking at hard numbers here. The average list price of the 359 O'Reilly books that appeared in the Bookscan Top 3000 computer books this week was $32.84, versus the average for all books in the top 3000 of $41.18. In other words, an O'Reilly book, on average, costs 80% of the average computer book price.

The average price last week for Pearson (AW, PH, Que, Sams, Peachpit, et al) was $42.32. The average for Wiley was $36.86 (and that's with a huge percentage of their sales being Dummies books at $21.99!). For Microsoft Press, the average price was $47.08! McGraw-Hill's average was $41.87.

So if O'Reilly is the most expensive in Canada, something is very wrong.

  DeanG [05.26.05 11:10 AM]

Tim - Do those averages hold up when you run those numbers with books with pages over ~200? I can't think of another publisher of Pocket References than "10 minute guide" stuff.

Being a popular publisher, is that ORA sets the high bar in which retailers stock books?

Aside: Radar.OReilly conversations seem more popular than ORA Blogs. Helping (but further complicating the feed recognition issues) are RSS feeds per entry, or switching to a completely alternative forum venue..

  Tim O'Reilly [05.26.05 09:52 PM]

There were only 9 pocket guides among those 359 books that contributed to the average, so I don't think they would skew the number that much.

  Hampton Catlin [03.07.06 09:39 AM]

I'm an avid O'Reilly fan who moved from NYC to Toronto. And I just bought my first O'Reilly book in Canada today. C in a Nutshell. Another fine book. However, it was $55.95CAN or would have been $39.95US. If you take $39.95US and convert that to Canadian dollars it would be $45.45. And, that's not a super good rate either. So, the book is 23% more expensive even after conversion.

Help us Tim! I'm sure there are tarrifs, but I don't know when this hostage-holding of Canadians by the American book industry began. But, it holds for most books.

You'd forever win the hearts of Canadians if you overtly bucked this trend! I mean, what, would Canadian book sellers have the best name in technology publishing? They'd have to swallow it and you'd make even more fans here and right an injustice!


  Herman [11.17.06 08:44 AM]

How does a person find out how many books have been published?

  Herman [11.17.06 08:48 AM]

I am trying to find out how many books titled One Armed Cowboy by E.L. Pond have been sold?

  Herman Bell [05.26.07 03:33 PM]

Is there a way to find out how many books written by E.L.Pond's One Armed Cowboy have been published?
Also how many have been sold to date?

  Self Publishing [07.24.07 06:25 AM]

In response to Herman Bell's question above, there is a way to find out how many books have been sold by an author, but it is not totally accurate because the number only reflects the number of books sold through Ingram, but it does give you a rough idea of how well a book is selling.

Make sure you have the ISBN number of the book, then call 1-615-213-6803 and follow the prompts. You can also find out how much inventory Ingram has in stock, which will also give you an idea of how well a title is selling.

Hope this helps.

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