I belong to a wide range of Facebook groups and follow a lot of media news, and few things are more frustrating than people who celebrate the apparent “resurgence” of print and the comeback of independent bookstores as some kind of “win” over ebooks and digital media. Most of it is wishful thinking rather than an understanding of what’s actually happening out there. With my colleague Porter Anderson, I try to offer perspective on current developments and put all the stats into their proper context. (Check out The Hot Sheet.)
Here are three recent data points you should know about.
1. The ebook sales decline in the United States is related to traditional publishing and possibly its high pricing.
As you can tell from Nielsen’s graph above (which tracks sales of titles with ISBNs), the flattening of ebook sales started happening back in 2013. Some of the ebook decline we’re seeing may be attributable to higher ebook prices from traditional publishers, as well as rapidly falling Nook sales.
Adult ebook sales have been relatively stable; the big decline is in children’s/YA ebook sales due to the lack of a big franchise hit in 2015. (I hope it gives you pause to learn that the absence of a Harry Potter book or a new YA series can directly affect how well the industry does in a given year.)
Two other unanswered questions:
- whether book readers are transitioning from ebook purchases to audiobook purchases; that’s where most of the sales gains are happening for traditional publishers.
- whether the most avid ebook readers have switched to ebook subscription services such as Kindle Unlimited or Scribd.
2. Recent print sales gains can be accounted for by coloring books.
Nielsen reports that about 12 million coloring books were sold in 2015. Compare that to just 1 million in 2014. The increase is so dramatic that coloring books alone can account for the increase in print sales in 2015. Once interest cools off, what do you expect will happen to print sales?
3. Market share is drifting away from the Big Five publishers to small presses and self-publishers.
Again, Nielsen’s latest report is very instructive. In this chart, we see how the share of Big Five publishers has declined by 12% over the last three years; small publishers and self-published authors have gained 23% market share combined. What’s even more astonishing is that Nielsen’s figures primarily give us a look at very traditional types of publishing, or books with ISBNs. There’s a whole universe of independent publishing that remains untracked because the titles don’t carry ISBNs—and most of those titles are not getting carried in your average bricks-and-mortar bookstore. They sell predominantly through Amazon.
Carry a big dose of skepticism, and look at possible underlying agendas, when you hear celebrations about print’s comeback. While I’m not at all proclaiming the death of print or traditional publishers, few media outlets have an understanding of the big picture.
Update (6/8/16): Some people have asked me: What about the bookstore myth referenced in the headline?
Barnes & Noble’s growth continues to be in the toys and games department—especially coloring books and vinyl records—and book sales fell 1.7 percent during the 2015 holiday quarter, their most important quarter. For more than six months, the CEO has mentioned new concept stores set to open in 2016, but no information has been released about how these stores will be different.
B&N CEO Ron Boire says the chain is benefiting from the adult coloring book trend (they hold coloring events at stores), and The New York Times indicated that Boire hopes to turn B&N into a “lifestyle brand.”
On the bright side, B&N plans to close fewer bookstores than originally estimated this year—only ten stores rather than thirteen. Closing ten locations would bring sales down about 1.5 percent.
As far as how well independent bookstores are doing, they are a very small percentage of book sales when compared to chain bookstores, big-box stores (the Wal-marts of the world), and of course Amazon. While membership in the American Booksellers Association has increased, ABA members can include used bookstores, online bookstores, mail-order, and so on. For ABA bookstores reporting to Nielsen, their unit sales increase in 2016 has so far been 5%, compared to a 6.4% increase in all US print book sales.
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