23 October 2014

Ebooks for Reform Jews

Since I've been trying, mostly without success, to get work creating high-quality ebooks of interest to Reform Jews, I was curious to survey the state of that business.

I decided, somewhat arbitrarily, that I would use the following data as a proxy for the state of ebooks of interest to Reform Jews.

I took as my sample the list of previously recommended non-fiction books from the URJs list of Significant Jewish Books.

Then, for each of these books, I created a row in a Google Spreadsheet with the following data.
  1. The Amazon sales rank for the best-ranking paper version of that book.
  2. The Amazon sales rank for the Kindle version of that book, if it existed.
To do the above, I used a combination of Amazon's pages and Aaron Shepard’s Sales Rank Express.

Of course, this data is only a proxy for what I really want to get at. I am using URJ's list as a proxy for the vague (and much broader) notion of "books of interest to Reform Jews." And, less dubiously, I am using Amazon paper and Kindle sales as a proxy for all paper and ebook sales.

This data collection turned out to be surprisingly tricky in many cases. Amazon isn't called Amazon for nothing: it is a jungle of not-that-well-organized data. In particular, for many books, it is not clear whether a Kindle edition exists, because a link to the Kindle edition is not provided from some or all of the pages showing a paper edition. In one case, the Kindle edition was only available for a previous edition of the book, which had a slightly different title! So you have to do a careful, separate search for a Kindle edition if one seems to not exist.

Anyway, enough of my kvetching, and on to the results.

Kindle editions are available for 31 out of the 50 books (62% of the books). As to what the quality of these Kindle editions is, I have my doubts. In my experience, Kindle ebooks vary greatly in quality, but all are lower quality (e.g. have more typos) than their paper counterparts.

Somewhat surprisingly, there doesn't seem to be a strong relationship between the rank of the paper book and the presence of an ebook. I would have expected publishers to be more pragmatic in their choice of which titles they have chosen to convert from their back catalog, letting worse-ranked titles languish in paper-only obscurity.

The best-ranking paper book without an ebook was Primo Levi's The Periodic Table. Its paper rank was 30,845.

On the other hand, of the 15 books whose rank was worse than (i.e. higher than) 500,000, about half (8 of them) were available as ebooks!

Perhaps low-quality ebook conversion is so cheap that publishers don't worry about a paper book's low performance too much in deciding whether to convert it to be an ebook. What factors they do consider in making the decision, I would love to know.

In four cases I deem significant, ebooks actually out-rank their paper counterparts.
  1. A Tale of Love and Darkness
  2. The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit
  3. The Beggar King and the Secret of Happiness: A True Story
  4. The Israelis: Ordinary People in an Extraordinary Land
This comparison is a little arbitrary since I don't think ebook and paper book rankings can be directly compared, since there are many more paper books for sale there than there are ebooks for sale. Even if there were exactly the same number of ebooks and paper books for sale, it would only tell you whether the ebook sells better, relative to all ebooks, than the paper book sells, relative to all paper books. In other words it would not tell you whether the ebook sells more copies than the paper book.

Still, for lack of a better metric, comparing ebook rank to paper book rank is interesting.

In my spreadsheet, I've used orange as the background color for all cases in which the ebook has a better rank than its paper counterpart.

I only consider the four best-ranked cases of this to be significant since I assume that down in the poor-performing end of the rank distribution (let's say, rank worse than (i.e. higher than) 500,000), there is a lot of noise.

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