Rare Book Monthly

Articles - January - 2006 Issue

BISG Study Shows Rapid Growth of Online Book Sales


BISG survey of used book market is available for download.

By Michael Stillman

Looking back at news from the book world this past year, I ran across the BISG (Book Industry Study Group) survey of the used book world released in September. Most of you probably read about it, but just in case you didn't, it's worth a year-end review. Actually, it compares the two previous years, 2003 and 2004. However, barring some unimaginable turn of events, we suspect the pronounced trends spotted a year ago persist to the present. What it showed may not be that surprising, but the rate of change is. Let's take a look.

First a quick note about the BISG. It is a trade association consisting of retailers, publishers, librarians, and others involved in the trade. Generally, its interests would run more to new books, since this is still where the vast majority of business takes place. However, with the advent of online commerce and large used book selling sites, this segment of the trade has become of increasing interest. While their focus here is still more on the "used" segment, rather than the more valuable "collectible" section, the report is enlightening.

According to the BISG, 112.2 million used books were sold in 2004. This represented $2.2 billion in sales, an 11.1% rate of growth from 2003. About one-third of these books were in the field of education, essentially college texts. As anyone who has a child in college knows, these books are ridiculously expensive. The result is they represented the bulk of the dollar volume. The BISG pegged the average education book at $41, versus $15.50 for all others.

The BISG placed $1.57 billion of the used book sales in bookstores, compared to $609 million online. Library fairs and the like accounted for the remaining $46 million. However, while bookstores grabbed around two-thirds of the sales, the trend is in a different direction. Growth at bookstores was just 4.6%, and at "others" it was only 1%. However, online growth was an astounding 33.3%. The survey then notes were it not for growth in sales of used books at college bookstores, bookstores would actually have seen a year-to-year decline. There is clearly a major shift taking place, and we suspect this change continues unabated to the present.

The survey also stated that, excepting the education books, average sales prices are "significantly higher" online, although it did not state by how much. Average price is an important point for booksellers to remember. Most think of online selling as a way to gather additional sales. Evidently, it is also a means of getting customers to spend more. Average order size is every bit as important as total number of books sold.

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