Funny numbers

Not shockingly, there's been a lot of coverage of Barnes & Noble lately.

Whether or not the company is going to go under is pretty much an academic concern for self-published authors. (And here's a more optimistic assessment than mine, although I feel a certain obligation to point out that that position is hedged with such inspirational examples as Research In Motion.) Authors are suppliers, not employees or investors, and the cost of putting a book up on B&N is zero, so, you know, if they get out of the soup, very nice for them, and if they don't, presumably other retailers will pick up the slack. Really the only numbers a self-published author needs to worry about with B&N is his or her own sales figures.

But being a former business reporter, I wanted to note something that Passive Guy first pointed out: No one knows what B&N's share of the e-book market actually is. How could they know that they have 25% or 26% or 27% or 30% of the e-book market, when overall e-book sales aren't reported anywhere? Certain numbers that public companies report are federally regulated--lie about your 2012 profits, and you get in all kinds of trouble. But most numbers (especially those companies like to throw around in press releases) aren't--and guess what category "percentage of the e-book market" falls into?

This is an old, old problem in publishing: Even with print books, the best data available is far from perfect, and it doesn't cover e-books. I don't know that it's possible to gather good data about e-books: Even if you had audited reports from the major retailers, publishers and authors can sell books from their own Web sites, so how are you going to account for that?

So we're left with that old journalistic standby--guesswork! Guesswork and (my favorite) not telling people that it's guesswork!

For example, in The New York Times, you see "the company has made quick work of capturing almost 30 percent of the e-book market in two years." And then you see a bunch of quotes from B&N executives saying that, wow, this is an amazing business to be in--look how much market share they've captured! And so quickly! Certainly it makes lots and lots of sense for someone to come along and buy it!

Of course, there's also this, also from The New York Times, "I.H.S. iSuppli, a research company, estimates that Barnes & Noble has 13 percent of the e-reader market after two years in the business, versus 67 percent for Amazon. The company tracked shipments of display parts to prepare its estimates."

Oh! So B&N controls only 13 percent of the market!  It's not the same market--they could control 13 percent of the e-reader market and almost 30 percent of the e-book market simultaneously. But the Nook is an e-reader, not an e-book. It's not B&N's e-book business. Nor is it B& It's a device, and they control 13 percent of the market for that specific device, not including tablets or cell phones or other things that people read e-books on.

(ETA: Of course, the 13 percent figure is also guesswork, but at least it honestly identifies itself as guesswork and provides the reader some idea of how it was determined, which helps a reader decide whether it's a good guess or not. That's a lot better than regurgitating data provided by an interested party as though it were sacred writ.)

Again, this is of academic interest, really, but it may help you make more sense of future events. There's a bit of a snow job going on right now--nothing wrong with that, really, it's not like I post the "meh" reviews of Trang here. Just be aware that reporting is usually regarded by companies as a venue for marketing.