Ebook sales falling for the first time, finds new report

Research by the Bookseller shows that sales for the ÔÇÿbig fiveÔÇÖ UK publishers dropped in 2015

Ebook sales for the UKÔÇÖs five biggest publishers fell in 2015, according to a new report in the Bookseller, collectively declining 2.4%, to 47.9m units. It is the first drop in numbers of books sold in this medium for the ÔÇ£big fiveÔÇØ since the digital age began.

The Bookseller magazine says that each of the five biggest general trade publishers in the UK ÔÇô Penguin Random House, Hachette, HarperCollins, Pan Macmillan and Simon & Schuster ÔÇô saw their ebook sales fall in 2015. At Penguin Random House, the UKÔÇÖs largest trade publisher, ebook totals slipped by 0.4% in 2015, down from 16.17m to 16.1m. At Hachette, they were down 1.1% to 14.5m, while at HarperCollins, when sales from Harlequin Mills & Boon are excluded (the company was acquired halfway through 2014), ebook sales were down 4.7%. The slip at Pan Macmillan was 7.7%, and at Simon & Schuster it was 0.3%.

ÔÇ£For those who predicted the death of the physical book, and digital dominating the market by the end of this decade, the print and digital sales figures from the big five for 2015 might force a reassessment,ÔÇØ wrote the BooksellerÔÇÖs features editor Tom Tivnan. ÔÇ£Sales have dropped. Or at the very least, we can without a shadow of a doubt say that ebook volume slid for the big five publishers for the first time since the digital age began.ÔÇØ

Publishers Association chief executive Stephen Lotinga commented: ÔÇ£Ebooks are co-existing with print books, as opposed to taking over ÔǪ digital sales of fiction and non-fiction appear to be slowing as readers increasingly want to consume books in a variety of waysÔÇØ. But he said that ÔÇ£for many publishers ÔÇÿdigitalÔÇÖ remains an important element of their business and we expect this year to see growth in digital across educational and professional publishingÔÇØ.

The BooksellerÔÇÖs editor Philip Jones attributed the decline to ÔÇ£a natural slowing down of growth and adoption ratesÔÇØ in digital, along with a slowdown in sales of Kindles. In the autumn, Waterstones said it would stop selling Kindles in most of its stores because it was ÔÇ£getting virtually no salesÔÇØ.

Waterstones chief executive, James Daunt, feels that the advantages and disadvantages of digital reading are becoming better understood  This is resulting in a partial return to physical book reading as ebook reading finds its natural level. In particular, this is favouring good publishing: with good books, there is a clear benefit to owning the real thing. A bookshelf of real books makes its digital imitator seem pale indeed.

PublishersÔÇÖ shift to agency pricing for ebooks ÔÇô whereby they, rather than retailers, control ebooksÔÇÖ retail pricing ÔÇô will also have slowed growth, said Jones. ÔÇ£They have increased prices for many of their ebooks, or at least taken them out of Amazon levels of discount. Publishers are more interested in managing a sales mix of print and ebooks than Amazon, and that could lead to a natural slowdown in growth of ebook sales for those publishers in agency pricing.ÔÇØ

He also pointed to the ÔÇ£vast numbersÔÇØ of self-published ebooks that have come onto the market in recent years: according to experts surveyed by the magazine last year, self-published ebooks account for anything between ┬ú58m and ┬ú175m.

ÔÇ£They are clearly taking sales away, at very low price levels, from traditional publishersÔÇÖ ebooks. There is no doubt that is happening ÔÇô the question is how big a dent in the market those titles are making It is certain that [self-published titles] are taking market share from the bigger publishers, and that is no bad thing as the market develops, as a lot of self-published books are the most innovative out there.ÔÇØ

Data on the whole of the digital market is not currently available, so the Bookseller has estimated that if the big five hold a similar market share in digital as they do in print (56%), there were 85.5m ebooks sold in Britain in 2015. Author Earnings, which uses a software programme to crawl AmazonÔÇÖs bestseller lists and collect data, paints a different picture of the UK market. In a November report, it claimed the big five account for 31% of all ebooks sold on Amazon.co.uk, while self-published authors have reached 26%.

Adding its own total to the number of print books sold in 2015, the Bookseller estimates that there were 276.2m print and digital books sold in 2015, 2.9% up on its 2014 estimate, with digital accounting for 30.9% of all volume sales, down from 32.7%.

But when value, rather than volume, is considered, a different picture emerges: on the estimate that ebooks sold for an average ┬ú4.35, the Bookseller calculates that digital books earned around ┬ú381.5m last year, giving a combined print and ebook total of ┬ú1.9bn, up 7.1% on the previous year. ÔÇ£2015 was a stonking year ÔǪ maybe one of the best ever,ÔÇØ writes Tivnan.

Philip Jones said: ÔÇ£I think overall, the digital market has certainly gone up, if you include smaller publishers and self-published books and digital-only publishers But I donÔÇÖt think that changes the overall picture of the ebook marketplace, which has slowed down from 2012 to 2014, and which will, I think, continue to slow as readers migrate from dedicated e-ink reading devices to tablets and mobile phones.ÔÇØ