Does Digital Cannibalize Print? Not Yet.

One of the big risk factors publishers think about when it comes to digital books is that they will cannibalize print sales. Factor in the lower prices we’re seeing for ebooks, and it’s a quite reasonable concern.

Looking at data on sales from our website, at first glance that would appear to be exactly what’s happening:


Over the past 18 months, we’ve gone from print outselling digital by more than 2:1 to just the opposite.

But that’s not the full story. If there really was cannibalization happening, you’d expect to see our print sales underperforming the overall computer book market, but that’s not what’s happening. Here’s a comparison of how our sales (as measured by Bookscan) stack up against the broader computer book market. The data here is normalized (the first period in the graph is set to 100, and subsequent results are calculate relative to that period):


Roger Magoulas, who heads up our Research Team (which is doing some way cool stuff with App Store data) put it this way in a recent backchannel email covering this as part of a larger analysis:

By looking at the data and these charts we infer that while O’Reilly physical book sales are down compared to last year, this seems more the result of the drop in demand for computer books since the financial meltdown than the impact of ebook sales. Since O’Reilly is a relatively prolific publisher of econtent we would expect that ebooks would affect O’Reilly’s physical book sales more than other publishers and we don’t see that evidence in these results. Even if ebooks are taking a bite out of O’Reilly physical book sales, we see no negative effect on O’Reilly’s slightly increasing share in the physical book market nor on how O’Reilly’s sales correlate with the overall market for physical computer books.

So, for now, if what we infer is correct, you can put away your exorcism crosses, ebooks seem more a legitimate expanded market opportunity than a projectile vomiting Linda Blair wannabe.

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