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Book-buyers steady in declining market

4 April 2011

The recent Books and Consumers conference showed some surprising trends in British book-buying, which is catching up on the US as regards e-books.

Ebook sales, whilst much talked-about, were still only 1% of the total in 2011. But Kelly Gallagher, Vice President Publishing Services of PubTrack Bowker, the US parent company of Book Marketing Limited, which presented the research, observed that in the US ebook sales had enjoyed a "hockey stick" moment, with a steep rise in sales once devices had become prevalent.

Clearly the US is well ahead of the UK as regards ebook sales, but in the UK they have doubled in the first 4 weeks of 2011, due to the Kindle in particular being a favourite Christmas present, and they may catch up fast.

Gallagher used the phrase "digital fatigue" to describe those multi-tasking teenagers and young people who are, in fact, reading all day - Facebook and Twitter and texts - but who suffer "a kind of digital fatigue and say they prefer a physical book as a break. They don't want a reader because they say they don't want to carry another device".

British consumers bought fewer books in 2010 than in 2008, down from 344m to 339m, with the amount spent down from £2,341m to £2,183m. The figures show that the volume of sales was down by 2% but the price paid down by 5%. Value is down a quite large 7% over the period, as the relentless downward spiral of discounting has continued.

64% of British consumers bought a book in 2010 and it's cheering to report that this number seems to be steady. However they bought less and spent less, so the market itself seems to be shrinking at the moment.

The UK market has been suffering from the collapse of Borders, uncertainty about Waterstones and the ongoing recession. Similar factors have affected the American market, where there is currently anxiety about Barnes and Noble, and Borders is in Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Book-buyers in both countries have been affected by the world recession, but the UK has a unique level of discounting to contend with.

Interestingly the figures show that in the UK books are increasingly bought as gifts and this may well be an area where print books will have an advantage, as it doesn't look as if consumers consider e-books to be a suitable gift.

The inexorable rise of online book retailers continues. The bookselling chains still have 30% of the market and online retailers have 26% but the latter are gaining ground and a very large proportion of this goes through Amazon. E-books, by the very nature of how they can be delivered, providing instant gratification, have 90% of the e-book market.

Finally, there's some good news for fiction writers. Adult and children's fiction are both up, although adult and children's non-fiction is down. Crime is doing well and adventure fiction, literary fiction, historical, and sf/fantasy also performing well. Romance fiction has shown the biggest decline - though romance sales are strong in the ebook market and this may be a simple shift of format from print to ebooks.