The latest print and eBook ISBN report from Bowker, Self-Publishing in the United States, 2013-2018, is out and it offers updated ISBN assignment numbers from such companies as Amazon (CreateSpace and KDP Print), Author Solutions (15 vanity press imprints), Lulu, Blurb and 44 other entities.
As in past years, headlines such as “Number of Self-Published Titles Jumped 40% in 2018” and the insistence of using eBook ISBN data to infer anything except individual company performance doesn’t just miss the stories but distorts what’s really going on in self-publishing.
In this 2019 analysis, I reach back to prior Bowker “Self-Publishing in the United States” reports and dig a little deeper to look for interesting trends and details. For example:
- A single company—Amazon—publishes 92% of all self-published books, up from 6% in 2007. (This begs the question: when will IngramSpark offer free ISBNs?)
- Bowker restates previously published ISBN numbers indicating self-publishing activity decreased 25% over the prior year. Is the heady growth of self-publishing behind us? Or will this year’s numbers also be restated?
- The race for second place: Small Publishers (see finding 2) continue to hold off Lulu to maintain their position as the second largest publishing “group” for the third year in a row.
Notes about this analysis
- For ease of understanding, I label the free ISBNs provided by CreateSpace and now KDP Print as “Amazon.” Amazon merged CreateSpace into KDP in 2018. The imprint names are “CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform” and “Independently published,” respectively.
- This analysis is of print book-only ISBN data unless otherwise noted. Using Bowker eBook data as any kind of predictor for this format is unhelpful. It does show how individual companies are performing but it doesn’t tell us anything about the eBook format itself because none of the major eBook self-publishing portals require an ISBN (Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo.)
- There are two well-known, free-to-use publishing services portals not represented in this report. Why not? Do these companies choose not to report ISBN assignments? What other publishers are not reporting?
- Draft2Digital. Just like Smashwords, Draft2Digital requires an ISBN to use their aggregator service or they will assign one of their own for free.
- Barnes & Noble Press. This is the imprint name assigned to books that use the free ISBN provided by Barnes & Noble when using their POD service.
Here are my 5 key findings for 2019. You can find Bowker's report here.
1. 12 years of growth gives Amazon an unassailable position
According to Bowker records, Amazon’s market share of self-published print books has increased from 6% in 2007 to 92% as of 2018. During the same period, vanity press publishers have dropped from 73% of all books published in 2007 to just 6%. The turning point came between 2011 and 2012 when Amazon absolutely crushed their competitors.
In 2011, Amazon issued 37% of the ISBNs and vanity presses issued 48%. A year later, Amazon reached 56% and the vanity publishers could only manage to reach 31%. Since then, vanity publishing has been on a downward path as a percentage and essentially flatlining in terms of absolute numbers averaging about 96,000 books published per year the last five years. This is still almost double this category’s 2007 publishing output (49,032) but again, only 6% of the total.
2. Small Publishers are holding steady
Bowker defines Small Publishers as “those who have produced 10 or fewer ISBNs in total.” Anyone can buy ISBNs and use them with any printer (notably Amazon and IngramSpark), something AuthorImprints advocates as a way of building a publishing brand and maximizing options (for example, books with the free Amazon ISBN cannot be printed by anyone but Amazon). Also, a few major companies in Bowker’s report—Amazon, IngramSpark, Lulu, and Outskirts, for example—will sell a discounted ISBN that can use a publisher’s imprint name.
- Small Publishers' use of ISBNs has increased 320% since 2007 while all others excluding Amazon have increased by only 176%.
- Small Publishers passed Lulu, the second largest registrant of ISBNs after Amazon, in 2016. (For its part, Lulu passed Author Solutions in 2013 when it issued 13% of ISBNs vs 9% by Author Solutions.)
- Nevertheless, Small Publishers had its first negative growth year in 2018 dropping from 4% to 3% of total ISBNs issued.
3. Author Solutions imprints in third place for the fourth year
Author Solutions* has fallen from 27% of the market in 2007 to just 1% in 2018. This is a drop of more than 52% since their high-water mark of 33,701 ISBNs issued in 2011. Looking back now, we can see that Penguin acquired Author Solutions at its peak in terms of number of books published.
It took Blurb only two years to rocket to second place from a virtual standing start in 2013, passing Author Solutions’ 15 imprints in 2015. Blurb has been in second place to Lulu ever since.
When including Small Publishers, Author Solutions is in fourth place.
4. The inaccuracy of Bowker numbers—self-publishing has actually slowed
It’s important to note that numbers can change from year-to-year, sometimes significantly. Oddly enough, in just one reporting year—the 2017 report vs this recent 2018 report—Bowker tells us that they underreported Amazon’s ISBN registrations by 177,366 books in 2017, off by almost 24%. In 2016, Bowker underreported Amazon’s number by 16,662, or 3.3%.
This leads to less-than-meaningful reporting by the media. Let’s now use Bowker’s combined print and eBook ISBN totals to reconsider what self-publishing growth would have been had we been using accurate numbers. We begin with a 2019 headline:
- Between 2017 and 2018, self-publishing has grown 40%.
Using the old, underreported numbers, a similar heading in 2018 would have given us the headline:
- Between 2016 and 2017, self-publishing grew 28%.
Not an exciting headline. However, now that we have these newly restated numbers, we see that:
- Between 2016 and 2017, self-publishing grew 48%.
Wow, self-publishing grew faster in the prior year. Comparing the two periods, we see that the growth of self-publishing actually decreased by 15%!
Interestingly, using print-only ISBN data the deacceleration of growth was even greater: a drop of 25%.
(As noted by Bowker, some numbers are self-reported and those are noted in the report. However, the largest user of ISBNs—Amazon—automatically assigns their free ISBN. It is curious how such a significant underreporting can occur.)
5. Balboa Press vs Balboa Press
In public marketing these are the same the publisher. But Bowker reports ISBNs published by “Balboa Press (imprint of Author Solutions)” and “Balboa Press (Division of Hay House)” as separate entities.
When first launched in 2010, the Author Solutions Balboa Press published 85% of the combined output for these two and in fact in 2018 they had 97%. What’s interesting is that between 2015 and 2017 the Hay House Balboa Press imprint issued twice as many ISBNs than the Author Solutions Balboa Press imprint.
It would be interesting to know how and why it is decided that a given book is published by one imprint and not the other.
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AuthorImprints helps authors and businesses professionally self-publish using their own publishing imprint. Clients retain ownership, control, and all royalties. Learn more about publishing imprints.
David Wogahn is the author of My Publishing Imprint: How to Create a Self-Publishing Book Imprint & ISBN Essentials.
Header photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash
*Author Solutions publishes books under a number of imprints. In the 2019 Bowker report, those imprints are identified as: Xlibris, AuthorHouse, WestBow Press, Balboa Press, iUniverse, Archway, Trafford, Palibrio, PartridgeIndia, Abbott Press, Inspiring Voices, Booktango, CrossBooks, DellArte Press, Wordclay