At the start of the decade publishers feared death of Physical books. Consumers started abandoning buying Physical books at an alarming rate, seduced by E-readers and cheap digital books.
Even Jeff Bezos, the Amazon founder, was shocked by the speed of readers’ defection when Kindle downloads outsold hard copies on the website for the first time in 2011. “We had high hopes this would happen eventually, but we never imagined it would happen this quickly,” he said at the time.
World’s largest Publisher Time. Inc an 100-year-old was sold to its competitor Meredith due to plunging physical copies sale.
Now it seems e-book story has turned out to have a twist in the tale. Sales of physical books increased 4% in the UK last year while e-book sales shrank by the same amount. Glance around a busy train carriage and those passengers who aren’t on their phones are far more likely to have a paperback than a Kindle.
Publishers of books in all formats made almost $26 billion in revenue last year in the U.S., with print making up $22.6 billion and e-books taking $2.04 billion, according to the Association of American Publishers’ annual report 2019. Those figures include trade and educational books, as well as fiction.
While digital media has disrupted other industries such as news publishing and the music business, people still love to own physical books, according to Meryl Halls, managing director of the Books
Genres that do well in print include nature, cookery and children’s books, while people prefer to read crime, romantic novels and thrillers via e-reader, according to Nielsen Book International.
While millennials are blamed for killing industries, it’s actually younger people who appear to be popularizing print. Sixty-three percent of physical book sales in the U.K. are to people under the age of 44, while 52% of e-book sales are to those over 45, according to Nielsen.
It’s a similar picture in the U.S., where 75% of people aged 18 to 29 claimed to have read a physical book in 2017, higher than the average of 67%, according to Pew Research.
Michael Tamblyn, chief executive of Kobo, which makes e-readers and sells ebooks, including for WH Smith and Waterstones, reckons the decline is simply down to pricing. “We have seen ebook prices rise from traditional publishers and that does pull people away from digital and back to print.”
“Traditional publishers are setting the prices, which limits our ability as a retailer to discount or run price promotions,” he said. “One of the things that attracts people to ebooks is their affordability and people’s ability to take that pound they have for reading and stretch it further. Previously a book that a publisher would have published at £10.99 we could have sold for £7.99. What we like to see is a nice healthy distance between a print book and an ebook. It’s usually still the case but often isn’t as wide as we would like it to be.”
The average price paid for an ebook increased 7% to £4.15 in 2016, while the price of a hard copy increased 3% to £7.42.
The shift in e-book pricing reflects a change in the contractual terms agreed between Amazon, which controls up to 90% of the UK e-book market, and the major publishing houses. As a result it is now sometimes cheaper to buy the physical copy of a new title on Amazon than the Kindle download. Of the 16 books on the longlist for the Baileys women’s prize for fiction seven are either cheaper in print form or roughly the same price.
Another reason why digital book sales declined last year is because cookery and humour are simply better in print – and last year’s bestseller lists were populated by books by the fitness guru Joe Wicks, the Ladybird Books for Grown-ups series and Enid Blyton parodies.
“When we first started the business there was an expectation we would see 50% print/digital within five years [from 2012],” said Tamblyn. “Instead the ebook market has been plateauing in the 25-30% range.”
Ebooks perform best, he said, with “blockbuster fiction bestsellers and young adult crossover books like Hunger Games and Insurgent”.
As for the future of books, all formats will continue to be in demand, according to Jacks Thomas, director of The London Book Fair. “People always need knowledge and people always need stories, so from that point of view, the very core of the book industry I am sure is very strong. I’ll be really interested to see what the classroom of the future is because I think that will dictate a huge amount as to how future generations will engage with the written word … Or will it be the spoken word, but it will still be stories and it will still be knowledge, those aspects of books will still need to be curated. So, I think that the book, in whatever format, has a strong future”.