Saturday, 3 January 2015

Amazon Top 100 Kindle Books 2014 Part 1- Indies versus Trads, Revisited

Amazon Top 100 Kindle Books 2014 Part 1- Indies versus Trads, Revisited
Recently, Amazon released lists of its 100 top selling new titles for 2014. Last year, I analysed the 2013 list, so this year I will do the same. I will also compare and contrast the two lists, to see what has changed from then until now. As I noted last year, there is a lot of interesting information in these lists, for anyone who cares to do a little extra work, in terms of data mining and secondary analysis. Note that all the data in this blog is taken from the Amazon website, which is publicly available.
Given the nature of this blog, I will naturally focus primarily (though not exclusively) on the relative standings of Indie vs Trad publishing.
Let's review what these terms mean in this context. By “Indie”, I mean books that have been published under the new publishing model:
  • ebook published first (generally on Amazon, nook, iBooks, Kobo, etc),
  • little or no presence in bricks and mortar bookstores,
  • self-published or published by a very small publisher,
  • no query letters, agents or other “gatekeeper” functions,
  • most of the money from sales flows to the writer.

By “Trad”, I mean books that have been published under the Traditional publishing model (Trad can also be considered short for “Trade”):
  • print book published first or at the same time as ebook,
  • usually the print book is given a run in the bricks and mortar bookstores,
  • the publisher is a major corporation, with significant editorial and other infrastructure,
  • agents or editors provide “gatekeeper” functions,
  • most of the money from sales do not flow to the writer, unless that writer has a great deal of bargaining power due to consistent best-seller status.

Note that in this series of blogs, Trads will often be sub-divided further into the Big Five publishing houses and their imprints (referred to as BPH) and smaller traditional publishers (referred to as BPH-S).
As noted last year, the Amazon top 100 list doesn’t lay these distinctions out precisely, so we have to make some categorization decisions:
  • I considered a book “Indie” if it had a little known name listed as “Publisher” and Amazon Digital Services listed under “Sold By” in the Amazon metadata.
  • A Trad book published by one of the big publishers was categorized as BPH if one of the following was listed as publisher:
  1. Hachette
  2. Harper Collins
  3. Penguin
  4. Random House
  5. Simon & Schuster
  • A Trad book published by one of the other “smaller” publishers was categorized as BPH-S if it was published by a well known publisher who didn't belong to one of the big five. Note that I am including Amazon's own imprints in this category. Some examples are:
  1. Amazon
  2. Ballentine
  3. Delacorte
  4. Disney
  5. Doubleday
  6. Harlequin
  7. Harvard University Press
  8. MacMillan
  9. Mariner Books
  10. Putnam-Adult
  11. William Morrow
  12. WW Norton

Last year I said “No doubt there is some room to quibble about these categorizations, but one has to start somewhere.” In fact, upon review, I am quibbling with myself, as I have re-categorized 6 books that I considered Indie last year as Trad. Essentially, these were Trad imprints (sub-publishers owned by larger publishers, if you will), which I didn't recognize as such at the time. I freely admit that I am not perfect. Anyone who doesn't like the results that I present can take solace in that, if it makes them feel better. :).
Overall, by Publisher Type
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s look at some results. First and foremost is the matter of how many books each publishing model had in the top 100. As we can see in the table below, the big loser between 2013 and 2014 appears to be the category BPH, the big five publishing houses. They have gone from accounting for nearly three quarters of the top 100, to somewhat more than half. The smaller traditional publishers gained substantially, doubling their representation, from one in ten to one in five. Indies also gained quite handily, from about one in five to one in four.

Though the big publishing story last year was the Hachette-Amazon dispute, it appears that the decline in Big Five placements in the Top 100 was more widespread than just Hachette. In fact, Simon and Schuster also took quite a hit, as did Random House. On the other hand, Harper Collins and Penguin held their own.
Another interesting result is that the Amazon imprints did much better in 2014 than in 2013. This might seem suspicious to some – after all, they control the algorithms behind the “also boughts”, so there could be some room for favourable manipulation. On the other hand, the fact that many other smaller Trads improved their rankings, as did Indies, argues that this was a general movement from the big publishers to smaller publishers and independents.

Ranking Quartile, by Publisher Type
The table below shows how well each publisher type did, by ranking quartile. Quartile 1 refers to books ranked 1 to 25, quartile 2 is ranks 26-50, and so on. This analysis shows that the Big Five are still dominant in the top quartile, have slipped a bit in the second quartile, held their own in the third, and dropped dramatically in the fourth quartile.

The smaller Trads have improved in all four quartiles, indicating that their successes were quite widespread. Indies were down in the first quartile, up in the second, down a little in the third, and up substantially in the fourth. One could say that the main story here is replacement of Big Five Trads by Indies in the fourth quartile, and steady encroachment by smaller Trads overall.
It is also worth noting that most of the Amazon imprint improvements were in quartiles 3 and 4.

Gender, by Publisher Type
Looking at the gender of the writers, we see that female writers continued to make up the majority of writers in the Amazon Top 100, though they fell from 70% of the total in 2013 to 64% in 2014.

We do see a big shift in the gender make-up of the Big Five Trad writers. In 2013, females outnumbered males by 2 to 1, while in 2014 they were slightly less numerous than males. The smaller Trads maintained the roughly 2 to 1 female to male ratio, while Indies went from being mostly females, to entirely females.
The gender issue is an interesting one. I will do a blog focussing on gender a little later in the year.

Pricing, by Publisher Type
Looking at price ranges, I have categorized prices into three ranges: low (under $4.00), moderate ($4.00 to $7.99) and high (over $8.00). Note that these prices are those posted on the Top 100 list. If one brings up the books at any given point in time, the prices will often be different, given the dynamic pricing of both Amazon and individual publishers. I have to make the assumption that Amazon selected some representative price for their Top 100 list, though.

The most striking change between 2013 and 2014 is in the Big Five pricing. This year it is very bi-modal, with many books in the high and low price categories, but few in the middle. This is a reversal from last year's pattern, for them.
The smaller Trads, on the other hand were evenly split among the three pricing categories, in the 2014 data. In 2013, they were mostly focussed in the middle category.
Not surprisingly, the majority of Indies were in the Low price category, with a few in the middle category and none in the highest category. This pattern was the same in both 2013 and 2014.
Obviously, pricing strategies are of crucial interest to everybody, as shown by the protracted Anazon-Hachette negotiations in 2014. Based on this data, it would appear that the Big Five Trads have a new, two-track pricing strategy, concentrating their prices in the high and low ends. This may be a response to Kindle Unlimited, the Amazon subscription service. Other considerations may be in play. At any rate, it should be interesting to see how this develops over the coming year. 

Fiction vs Non-fiction, by Publisher Type
As the table below shows, the top 100 kindle books were almost exclusively fiction, whether by Indies or Trads, with only 4% of the Amazon Top 100 being non-fiction in either year.

Perhaps the most interesting result is that Thomas Piketty's highly scholarly economics book Capital in the Twenty-First Century squeaked into the top 100. I read it, and would recommend it to anyone, regardless of where they fall in the political spectrum. But don't forget to read Kati of Terra Book 2: On Assignment to the Planet of the Exalted, as a companion piece on the subject. :). 

Genre, by Publisher Type
Genre is also a key category of interest. As we see in the table below, there have been some shifts in genre between 2013 and 2014. Literary Fiction and Thriller/Suspense have picked up somewhat, while Romance has correspondingly gone down. There has been some talk of Romance readers and writers transferring some of their shopping to other, more specialized sites than Amazon (e.g. AllRomance). Perhaps this provides some supporting evidence for that speculation.

As the second table shows, the big fall-off in Romance in the Top 100 came in the Big Five Trads category, who fell from 29 books in that genre to only 10. Indies, on the other hand became even more concentrated in the Romance genre in 2014 than they had been in 2013. The smaller Trads were quite evenly distributed among the genres.

So, what’s the story in 2014, as compared to 2013?
  • Indies continued to make incremental gains, though Trads still dominated the AmazonTop 100 new releases.
  • The Big Five Trads seem to have lost some considerable ground, which was taken up by smaller Trads and Indies.
  • The Big Five still predominate at the top of the list, but the smaller Trads made inroads. Indies have come to dominate the bottom quartile now, though they have some representation in the higher ranks as well.
  • The proportion of women writers slipped a bit from 2013 to 2014, with most of that slippage being in the Big Five Trads.
  • Indie writers in the Top 100 were mostly female in 2013, but in 2014 they were exclusively female.
  • The Big Five Trads appear to be following a two track pricing strategy, aiming to dominate the high end and competing ferociously in the low end. Indies continue to sell at lower price points.
  • Though smaller Trads were more evenly spread out, a case could be made that publishers are deserting the middle ground. Perhaps this is further evidence in favor of Thomas Piketty's thesis of the disappearing middle class, being played out on a smaller scale.
  • The most popular Kindle books are still almost exclusively fiction, Indie or Trad. This held true in 2013 and 2014.
  • The highest selling Indies were almost all in the Romance category, in 2014. The Big Five Trads, on the other hand, lost ground in the Romance category. Trads still dominate Thrillers and Literary Fiction.
This analysis focussed on the make-up of the titles in the Amazon Top 100. In later blogs, we will look at numbers of reviews, as a rough proxy for sales. We will also look at customer ratings, writer demographics (gender, age, education), which writers showed up in the Top 100 both years, and whatever else we can extract from the dataset.

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