“Readers are swapping their Kindles for headphones,” begins a post in the UK’s The Times, referencing a forecast from Deloitte, which reports UK audiobook sales will exceed ebook sales in 2020.

Audiobooks are predicted to generate revenues of £115 million in the UK next year, up 30 per cent on 2018.

That’s all we have from The Times as the story is behind a paywall, but the UK’s Independent takes up the story:

The Independent takes a dig at rival newspaper The Telegraph, observing that,

ebooks – predicted as the “future of reading” by The Telegraph in 2009, are rounding out the decade with a continuing downward trend of ownership.

Sales of ebooks fell in 2017 by 4 per cent and have continued to falter.

Print book sales also fell in 2019, by 5.4 per cent. It ended a five-year period of growth for sales of physical books.

However audiobook sales increased by 43 per cent, bucking the trend with sales of £69 million.

Well, okay, but the author might have thought to look at the reality that back at the start of this decade ebooks were seeing growth curves even more impressive than the current audiobook surge.

What matters here is,

  1. whether audiobook sales are cannibalizing print or ebook sales, and there seems to be little evidence of that, and
  2. whether ebook sales are organically in decline or if this is a manufactured decline. Few would disagree it is the latter, with ebooks deliberately priced high by mainstream publishers to slow ebook engagement and protect their print investment

Nothing wrong with that – simple market economics – but it’s something we should acknowledge when reeling off the ebook numbers and declaring the format is falling out of favour.

We also need to factor in the ebook sales from self-publishers that aren’t being counted by Nielsen, and the library downloads and other digital reading taking place that passes uncounted and unremarked.

And when comparing revenue we might also factor in the much higher prices a typical audiobook commands, compared to an ebook.

If we sell 100 audiobooks at £30 a shot we bring in revenue of £3,000.

If we sell 100 mainstream ebooks at £10 a shot and 200 self-published ebooks at £5 a shot we have revenue of only £2,000 and so we can excitedly proclaim the headline that audiobooks are outselling ebooks.

But actually in these example figures we sold three times as many ebooks as audiobooks, and its very likely that per unit sales the ebooks were by far the more profitable for the publisher.

So which format is really selling the most?

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UPDATE: While this post was concerned mainly with the issue of comparing revenue values against volume of unit sales, so no adjustment needed, Nate Hoffelder at The Digital Reader took a closer look at the Deloitte numbers referenced by The Times – only to find they appear not to exist.

Read more here.