There's no question that online retailing has radically changed the way books are bought and sold. A recent Neilsen Online survey, quoted by BBC News, reveals that more books are sold on the Internet than any other product. As of early 2008, a full 41% of Internet users had bought books online--and those numbers are expected to continue to rise.
That sounds impressive. But what does it mean in terms of actual sales? When you slice the bookselling pie into its component parts--chain stores, independent stores, book clubs, the Internet--how big a slice belongs to the Internet?
This is an important question, because "the power of the Internet" is something that is often invoked in discussions of bookselling, without the nature of that power ever really being defined. Micropresses with limited distribution, for instance, may encourage writers to believe that their books' lack of brick-and-mortar bookstore presence isn't a significant handicap, because "so many books are bought online these days." Ditto for self-publishing services that sell mainly via the Internet, and self-publishing boosters working to convert others to their point of view.
Let's look at the numbers.
In 1999, according to data compiled by NPD Marketing Group (quoted in Wired), the Internet accounted for 5.45% of all books sold in the USA.
In 2001, Ipsos (quoted in the New York Times) found that the market share for online book sales had grown to 7%.
In 2004, the Internet slice of the bookselling pie had "stabilized" at 10-12% of the total market, according to analysts at research firm CL King & Associates (again quoted in the New York Times).
In 2007, that share appears nearly to have doubled. Bowker's PubTrack Consumer (quoted in PW) estimates that 20% of all US book purchases are made on the Internet. In the UK, according to Bookmarketing Limited's Books and the Consumer survey (quoted in Publishing News Online), 17% of all book revenue comes from online purchases.
Clearly, Internet book sales have become substantial (if not as substantial as some people would like to believe), and the trend is toward growth. To get the most out of this information, however, you need to turn it around. If 20% of books are sold online, 80% are sold elsewhere. To achieve volume sales, therefore, your book must be in as many "elsewheres" as possible--including brick-and-mortar outlets, which still substantially outpace the Internet. Chain stores alone account for 33% of the US book market, according to PW, and in the UK, according to Publishing News Online, chain store sales are "greater than through supermarkets and the Internet combined."
As important as the Internet is for book sales, it's just one piece of a complicated puzzle. Remember that the next time someone tries to tell you that bookstore presence doesn't matter because Internet sales are so huge, or that Internet availability is all you need because it exposes your book to an audience of millions. An audience of millions means nothing if no one knows your book exists. And that will be true even if the Internet eventually gobbles up the entire bookselling pie.