This week sees the publication of two reports about the state of the publishing industry in the UK that tell different stories about the importance of eBooks within it.

The first was a Nielsen market report presented at the company's Books & Consumers Conference that revealed that UK eBook sales accounted for £80m in revenue for the publishing industry in 2013. This figure, which was up 20% from the previous year, seemingly flies in the face of other market forecasts for 2013 which had expected eBook sales growth to level off in the past twelve months. eBooks' overall share of the book market rose to 25% (from 20% in 2012), while 40% of those purchases were for adult fiction titles with children's titles accounting for just 10% of digital book sales.

What makes this report especially interesting is that it now includes self-published titles, whose admittance into Nielsen's figures is itself a recognition of the growing size and importance of the 'indie' publishing market. As we've explored before, stripping out the contribution of self-published books when looking at the eBook market is a move that risks significantly underestimating both the revenue and gross sales of digital books. This observation is borne out by Nielsen's estimation of self-published books, which it says now account for 20% of all eBooks bought in the UK. Nielsen's decision to group traditionally published and self-published eBooks together also had a sizeable impact on the average price of eBooks. According to Nielsen's data, the average price of a self-published book is around £2 in the UK, with its traditionally published equivalent priced between £3.49 and £3.99, so treating the two types of books as one market has effectively reduced the mean selling price of an eBook to around 60% of the average selling price of a paperback book.

The second report, unveiled at a high profile creative industries event in London, is the Creative UK report, authored by analyst firm Enders Analysis and Bain & Company, the management consultancy formerly headed by US Presidential candidate Mitt Romney. It is more wide-ranging than Nielsen's report, encompassing music, film, television, advertising, the arts and newspaper publishing as well as the book publishing industry. It's also much more future-looking, making some bold predictions about the extent to which the eBook market will grow in the UK. According to the Creative UK report, eBook market share will reach 35% in the next two years and from there grow "only very slowly". It attributes at least some of this slowing of growth to a combination of factors: Amazon's dominance of the eBook market, piracy (particularly among textbook content) and emerging competition from subscription services like Scribd and Oyster.

What Enders' report doesn't make clear (which is a shame) is whether its analysis of eBook marketshare growth excludes or includes self-published content. As we have seen above self-published content contributes significantly to the market in terms of revenue and scale, so any assessment of book publishing that strips it out is missing a big part of the industry narrative.

Its points about content piracy affecting some under-reported areas of the market more than others are also interesting, though its public statements (the full report is only available to Enders' subscribers) don't contain any supporting data as to how much educational publishers are losing. Just as importantly it doesn't provide any insight into whether this pirated content is illegally copied digital textbooks or bootleg copies of physical textbooks shared digitally. If the former it's possible to argue that educational publishing does indeed have a serious piracy problem that has been driven by the shift to digital. If the latter, it suggests that the greatest risk educational publishers face is their ability to move with the times.

Lastly eBook subscription services are, as we have explored on this blog before, a potentially very disruptive force within the publishing industry but these businesses have scale problems of their own that could hold them back from becoming mass-market. This at least was a factor alluded to in the covering note on the report, which said:  “ some categories could perhaps develop successful specialist and niche services, and international subscriptions may also evolve”.

The report does, however, end on a positive note for the UK book industry as a whole concluding: "it it seems doubtful that the core narrative thrust that lies at the heart of book reading will be much changed in the next 10 or 50 years, as that communication technique speaks so directly to who we are. And a still safe bet: UK publishers will continue to play a critical role in what is a rapidly growing global reading industry.”

The question is, whether this 'core narrative' will be delivered mostly electronically or on paper, and what proportion those narratives will continue to be published and distributed by big publishers or independent story-tellers.

Image credit: Wongaboo