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Book sales - volume up, value down

13 April 2009

This year's Book Marketing Limited study Books and Consumers in 2008 showed some worrying trends in book purchasing in the UK, whilst demonstrating that books have fared comparatively well compared to music and DVDs. Volume purchases of both of the latter grew much faster than books, but both of them suffered from a huge drop in price - averages of 23% for DVDs and 34% for music.

Price does however play a big part in the sales picture for books. The 330m figure for books bought by consumers in 2008, although less than 2007, was ahead of 2006 levels and 10% up over the last five years as a whole. With average prices falling in each of the last three years, the longer-term volume growth brought only a 4% increase in spending. This represents a 6% decrease in real terms, once inflation is taken into account.

Steve Bohme, BML Research Director, pointed out: 'The market has become increasingly reliant on a smaller pool of buyers buying more books each year.' The book trade is very dependant on these heavy readers and will be disproportionately affected if they fare badly in the recession.

The BML study also revealed a contrast between sales of adults' and children's books. Between 2004 and 2008 purchases of adult books increased by 9% in volume but only 2% in value, reflecting a 6% decline in average price paid. By contrast, children's book sales were much more robust, with the average price paid up by 3% over this period, turning a 12% volume increase into 15% value growth.

The Internet has doubled its volume market share of books to 14% last year from 7% in 2004. At the same time supermarkets grew their share to 14% from 8% five years ago. The market share of the independent sector dropped only 1% over the same period, but UK chains' volume declined from 39% to 34% and direct mail slumped 5% to 11% over the same period.

So, fewer consumers are buying more books at a bigger discount, often in supermarkets or on the Internet. It's clear also that regular book purchasers are well aware of the cheapest places to buy books - and that that's where they will go. The pressure to discount is not going to go away as we battle our way through the recession, and both publishers and retailers are going to have to take account of the now ingrained public expectation that that they will get their reading matter at a discount.