Is Japan’s Rakuten the second biggest player in the western ebook and audiobook markets?

I’ve long been a lone voice on the indie circuit advocating authors take digital libraries seriously.

Admittedly back in 2011 it wasn’t so easy to get into OverDrive, but doing what isn’t easy is what separates the career author from the rest.

As I said four years ago back in January 2014,

Too many indie authors have their heads in the sand about the way things are developing out there. Wake up and smell the coffee! Subscription ebook reading and library ebook reading are the new black.

Why pay Amazon, or B&N, or Kobo, or Sony for every single ebook you read when you can pay a token fee at the library or a monthly subscription and read as much as you like, with exactly the same ease and convenience as from an online retailer?

This a full year and a half before Amazon launched Kindle Unlimited, and in response to news that OverDrive’s digital lending had crossed the 100 million downloads per year threshold in 2013.

Just how significant that was only becomes clear when we consider that the 102 million downloads in 2013 was equal to the OverDrive digital downloads of the entire previous ten years.

The breakdown then (for 2013) was 79 million ebook checkouts and 22.9 million digital audiobook checkouts.

Having seen increases again in 2014, 2015 and 2016, it was a given Overdrive was going to break records in 2017 with its ebook and audiobook lending. Back in July OverDrive already had over sixty libraries on track to break the million checkouts barrier.

In fact 59 did just that as the year ended, with a total of 225 million digital downloads, comprising 155 million ebooks and 68 million audiobooks.

Now take a look at this chart from the most recent of Data Guy’s Author Earnings Report (February 2017), looking at 2016 ebook sales.

Author Earnings estimate of 2016 ebook sales.

There’s not a direct comparison, of course, because library downloads do not equate one-to-one with ebooks sold by retailers.

But on the other hand, nor are all of Amazon’s reported sales actually sales. Data Guy’s numbers include Kindle Unlimited downloads and these are measured by the impact they have on chart position.

Amazon counts a KU download as a sale when compiling the charts, regardless of whether these downloads are later read and therefore paid out on.

That in itself raises questions about the “author earnings” aspect of the report, as well as the true number of unit sales, because the paid charts are warped by downloads of books that are never paid for.

But the real issue here is those library downloads, which from OverDrive alone amounted to just shy of 200 million in 2016, the period covered by the last Author Earnings Report.

Other digital libraries also reported downloads in the millions. Hoopla, for example, saw over six million downloads in 2016, while Odilo reported “tremendous growth.” There are plenty more (Baker & Taylor, etc), but OverDrive stands head and shoulders over the rest.

Yet the Author Earnings Report completely ignores them. There is not a single mention of OverDrive or digital library downloads in the last Author Earnings Report, covering the year 2016. which attributed 440 million ebook sales to Amazon and just 44 million to Apple.

A reminder that OverDrive’s 2016 digital downloads totaled 198 million, of which 139 million were ebooks.

No, they weren’t retail sales, but nor are Kindle Unlimited downloads. Yet KU ebook downloads are counted, while OverDrive’s ebook downloads are not..

It’s the same story with OverDrive and digital library audiobook downloads.

And that’s an even more interesting contrast.

Because in comments on the February 2017 Author Earnings Report, Data Guy stated that there were

about 50 million audiobooks sold a year in the US, versus almost 500 million ebook purchases.

That’s total audiobook sales as measured by Data Guy across the retailers.

Yet here is OverDrive, less than a year later reporting it alone recorded 68 million audiobook downloads.

Again, sales and audiobooks are not directly comparable, but clearly ignoring digital library downloads does not show us the true picture about consumer interest in ebooks and audiobooks.

Now let’s take a closer look at the 2017 OverDrive figures, where there are more surprises in store.

Because alongside that 225 million actual downloads of ebooks and audiobooks in 2017, another 83 million possible downloads were on hold because the titles were already out on loan and readers were patiently waiting for them to be returned.

As to the downloads that did happen, 59 libraries delivered a million downloads each, 14 libraries saw 2 million downloads, 7 libraries saw three million downloads each.

Two libraries crossed the magical four million mark, with the Toronto Public Library on the way to 5 million downloads, reaching 4.6 million.

But the big surprise came not from North America, but from Singapore.

As I reported here at TNPS last year, Amazon launched in Singapore in 2017 and decided Singaporeans weren’t interested in books. No Kindle Singapore store and just a few hundred print titles available.

And as also reported in TNPS, in October 2017 OverDrive launched the world’s first digital business library in, you guessed it, Singapore.

With no Kindle store to select from, Singaporeans downloaded 1.5 million digital downloads from OverDrive in 2017.

Now owned by Kobo’s parent company Rakuten, OverDrive continues to go from strength to strength, both in North America and globally, and for indie authors it’s never been easier to get ebook titles into the OverDrive catalogue (audio a bit more challenging, but it can be done).

Last year the US-based aggregator Draft2Digital joined Smashwords, PublishDrive, StreetLib, Bookbaby, Ebook Partnership and others in providing easy-access to the OverDrive store.

And for those using Kobo’s self-publishing portal Kobo Writing Life, Kobo and OverDrive finally got their act together in 2017 and are now working in tandem.

And that’s worth bearing in mind, because between the two companies (Kobo operates from Canada, OverDrive from the USA) the Japanese parent company of both, Rakuten, is a far bigger player in the digital book markets than most authors and publishers realise.