Market Share: You’d Be Surprised What The Big 6 Controls

Independents v Big 6 Market Share
(Based on Nielsen Bookscan Data)

How Much of the Total Market for Books is Controlled by the Big Six Publishers?

I have not seen any sort of figure, hypothesis, or guess in any article or blog about this question, which is odd, because the extent of the market domination of these giant publishing houses is a crucial factor in understanding the issue of the Agency Model versus the Wholesale Model for eBook sales.

There is a quite complete account of this issue previously posted on this blog under the title “At What Discount Should Publisher Sell EBooks to Resellers,” but the short version is that the Big Six used their market power to compel Amazon and other resellers of eBooks to accept 30% of sales while all the other publishers have so far had to give Amazon and most of the others 50% of sales (Apple deals with everybody on agency terms). Obviously, the extent of the market dominated by the Big Six is a fact we need to know.

A week or so ago, I logged on to the Bookscan website (this is a subscription only service, provided by Nielsen to the book industry, that tracks point-of-sale data gathered from most of the booksellers in the US.) I added up all the year-to-date unit sales of the Big Six, and then divided by the year-to-date unit sales for all of the publishers tracked by Nielsen. The answer to this curious math problem turned out to be roughly 51%.

How reliable is this percentage? There are of course many experts who will find fault with any straightforward assertion; the Truth, they will tell you, is always far, far more complicated than you think. Here are some sample objections: Yes, this 51% is units rather than dollars. Yes, many companies that sell books as a sideline are not tracked by Bookscan. Yes, it is probably true that some professional books and text books get counted.

But let’s not allow the perfect to be the enemy of the very good. The Nielsen data is based on sales to consumers, not on shipments by publishers to stores, which used to be the only data we had. The actual market share of the Big Six may well be some points higher or lower than 51%, but so what? All we need here is a reliable generalization.

Is 51% a large share or a small one? I think it is about right. The book industry needs some very large players with big marketing budgets and high-profile authors to keep the American public excited about books. And if the big guys have 51%, that leaves plenty of room for some quite big and well-established independents such as Norton; for quite a few middle-sized prosperous ones like Chicago Review Press; and for the thousands of small houses who are prospecting for the new authors and subjects that will feed our intellectual life in the future.

So if these independents have 49% of the market, isn’t that enough for them to find a way to get a fair deal with the resellers, a deal that does not keep them at such a tremendous competitive disadvantage to the Big Six?

Curt Matthews

CEO, IPG/Chicago Review Press, Incorporated

Curt Matthews is the founder and CEO of Chicago Review Press, Incorporated, which is the parent company of Chicago Review Press and of Independent Publishers Group (IPG), the first independent press distributor and now the second largest. Curt has served on the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) board and has also served as its president.

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