Sales of physical books increased 4% in the U.K. last year while ebooks shrank by the same amount, according to The Guardian. E-books, which were once expected to account for 50% or more of total book sales, have plateaued far short of that in many countries.
In Canada, for example, e-books accounted for just 16.8% of total sales in 2016, a decline from 19% a year earlier, according to Booknet. Paperbacks, meanwhile, made up 54.2% of purchases while hardcovers accounted for 23.9%.
The reasons for the resurgence of print books are numerous, with the culprit most often cited being the change in how e-books are priced. Publishers are now setting their prices, as opposed to the retailers, which means prices have risen over the past few years.
As The Guardian notes, average e-book prices rose 7% to £4.15 in 2016, while hard copies increased 3% to £7.42. E-book retailers such as Kobo believe the shrinking price disparity between digital and physical has made the former less attractive to readers.
A separate story, however, also points out an important point to remember when tracking book sales – that the market has always been volatile. The book business depends largely on big hits, which can easily swing sales numbers one way or another.
Brazil is a great example. Physical book sales nearly doubled in 2013 thanks to the huge success of a cookbook by former priest Padre Marcelo Rossi. Between 2015 and 2016, however, overall sales fell 9%.
The battle, therefore, isn’t really between physical books and their digital equivalents, but rather everything else that’s available to consumers.
From TV shows and movies to video games and good old-fashioned real-world activities – socializing or playing sports – books have never had as much competition for people’s attention.
As Kobo chief executive Michael Tamblyn told The Guardian:
“People are more than willing to sit down for five hours and watch six episodes of The Walking Dead. We are in a digital arena fighting for that same customer as Netflix or Facebook. For all of us the fight really is around attention and our ability to bring it back to reading.”
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