There’s no doubt we are undergoing a digital revolution. We now work and shop more and more online and much of our leisure and non-work time is spent online. One of the most obvious indicators of this is the ebook. Take a trip on the London Underground or any other major modern transport system and you will almost always see more people reading Kindles and other eBook readers rather than traditional books. It’s easy to understand why. Why carry a bulky book with you when you can access thousands of books instantly on one small, thin and light device?
Of course, this has seen ebook sales gradually rise over the last few years but last week saw some information published by the UK’s Publishers Association that suggested the sales of consumer ebooks have plummeted by 17% whilst the sales of physical books are actually up by 8%. So why have sales dropped? According to Cathryn Summerhayes, a literary agent at Curtis Brown, it’s because they are no longer seen as desirable.
“It was new and exciting. But now they look so clunky and unhip, don’t they? I guess everyone wants a piece of trendy tech and, unfortunately, there aren’t trendy tech reading devices and I don’t think people are reading long-form fiction on their phones. I think your average reader would say that one of the great pleasures of reading is the physical turning of the page. It slows you down and makes you think.”
James Daunt, managing director of high street book retailer Waterstones also thinks it is to do with the increase in the physical condition of traditional books.
“Part of the positive pressure that digital has exerted on the industry is that publishers have rediscovered their love of the physical. The physical book had become quite a cheap and tacky thing at the turn of the millennium,” Daunt says. Publishers “cut back on the quality of the paper, so if you left a book in the sun it went yellow. They were gluing, not sewing. They would put a cover on a hardback but not do anything with the hard case underneath. Nowadays, if you take a cover off, there is likely to be something interesting underneath it.”
However, all may not be as it seems with the figures published by the Publishers Association and there may not actually be a decline in ebook sales at all. On closer inspection, the statistics that point to a fall in ebook sales only actually relate to those sold by members of the the Publishers Association. The cause of this is well known, price. Since the Publishers Association and its members went into a publishing deal with Amazon which saw price increases, sales of ebooks from member of the Publishing Association (and the American Publishers Association who also are part of the deal) have declined. However, this decline has been countered by a big increase in ebook sales by independent, non Publishers Association publishing houses and self publishers. According to figures from the American website Author Earnings, ebooks in 2017 have a healthy 34% of UK book sales.