The New York Times Taking an Interest in Ebooks

2010 was a landmark year for the ebook industry. In July, Amazon announced that it was doing more trade in ebooks than in hardcovers, selling 143 digital editions for every 100 hardcovers sold. Then, in October, the Association of American Publishers and the International Digital Publishing Forum released figures showing a 250% increase between 3Q 2010 and the same time period the previous year.

With ebooks having such a major impact, it's appropriate that 2010 was also the year that The New York Times announced its decision to add ebook categories to its venerable weekly best-seller lists. According to a November press release from The Times (which could not be reached for comment), the increasing popularity of ebooks motivated the paper to begin tracking ebook sales in its weekly sales feature, tracking both fiction and nonfiction sales. The digital sales figures will be based on retail sales and are slated to make their first appearance on the list some time in early 2011.

Legitimacy for a burgeoning market-at least according to Ned May, VP and lead analyst at Outsell, Inc.-may be the most obvious impact of The Times adding ebooks to its lists. "I think it's validation," says May. "The New York Times will break stories, but more often they just tell us stories with a certain authenticity. When they say it, there's trust. For them to be tracking this really validates that the market has become an important channel for books."

To deliver the figures, The Times is teaming up with RoyaltyShare, Inc., a company that develops revenue management and reporting software. The company was founded in 2006 and was originally focused primarily on the music industry, but it expanded into ebook sales tracking earlier this year. The company's ebook platform is also being used by Hachette Book Group and Bloomsbury USA.

One of the first questions likely to be on the minds of many people is whether or not the titles on an ebook best-seller list will mirror those on traditional best-seller lists. According to May, Outsell's research shows that ebook buyers purchase more books a year than the average consumer. That means there's the possibility that an ebook best-seller list may include a more diverse selection of books. "They're driving a lot of the consumption. And in that sense it may be broader, so it may show some different trends," says May.

But May also questions the long-term significance and impact of an ebook best-seller list. Much has been made of the growing impact of social recommendation, and social media in general, on media consumption. Ebooks in particular have seen a rise in the number of readers with built-in social functionality, with companies such as Kobo, Amazon, and Copia integrating social features into their e-readers. If this sort of social impact becomes so central to determining how people consume digital media, it might mean that best-seller lists and other forms of centralized recommendation will become less important. However, May also notes that despite all the talk of social recommendation, lists still seem to greatly influence sales.

May also wonders how long it will remain useful to track ebooks separately from traditional book sales, as ebooks become increasingly mainstream and are adopted by the general reading population. "One of the interesting things here is [the question], ‘Are ebooks a class of themselves?' It's worthy to track today, but at some point the distinction of an ebook becomes almost a meaningless distinction," says May.

The missing puzzle piece, however, is the yet-to-be seen impact an ebook best-seller list will have on publishing companies, many of which have already found their influence overshadowed by that of high-tech companies such as Amazon; Apple, Inc.; and now Google, even as those same companies drive new revenues to the publishers. According to May, an ebook best-seller list could be the same sort of mixed blessing, promoting titles and driving revenue to publishers while simultaneously reducing their role in distribution by offering yet another alternative means to drum up interest in a digital, and possibly self-published, title. He says, "If a publisher's got a title on that list, it's great for them. But it's another way for publishers, in some ways, to be disintermediated."