Anyone with an eye on ebook buyer behaviour can’t fail to have noticed the latest dismal headlines. After what looked like a bracing start for the format, ebook sales are reported to be in a state of steady decline amidst accounts of print book revivals and ‘digital fatigue’. According to the Publishers Association, UK sales of consumer ebooks plummeted by 17% in 2016 with print books increasing by 7%. A similar trend could be seen in the US where the Association of American Publishers announced an 18.7% fall in digital sales compared with a 7.5% hike for paperbacks and 4.1% for hardbacks. Early studies from 2017 also seem to confirm the predicted plateau effect.
But there is a another story lying in wait behind the headlines. The decrease in sales is largely attributed to the big five and traditional publishers – who have an obvious stake in print. In the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook 2017, Philip Jones argues that as growth from the big publishers slows, ‘the market itself continues to grow – mostly via small publisher ebook sales or those derived through self-publishers.’ Amazon losing the right to set industry ebook prices has also seen prices align with or exceed that of print and audio. Less attractively priced bestsellers obviously drives browsers to other formats. This suggests that ebook readers may be more open to big gains without the big names.
Another factor to consider is the data we don’t have or can’t easily access. Mysterious Amazon figures aside, there is also piracy, which we can learn something about. A recent Digimarc and Nielsen study found that ebook piracy cost the US $315m a year and was commonly the preserve of ordinary college educated readers between the ages of 30 and 44. Publishing expert, Jane Friedman also asks whether ebook buyers are migrating to audiobooks (where sales are on the increase) and whether the more voracious readers have opted for unlimited subscription models.
A 2015 Nielsen Books and Consumers report does shed some light on ebook subscribers in the UK and US. The majority were found to be male (59%), between 18 to 44 years of age and likely to spend more than non-subscribers. This is in stark contrast to general e-reader findings. A survey by Bowker reveals a significant female readership of 63% while more recent research for Kobo reveals an active female reader base of 75%. Kobo readers are also predominantly aged 45-plus and eager to get hold of the latest romance and crime novels. Smashwords report a similar trend with romance dominating 50% of their total retail sales. They also found a great fondness for series, though add the caveat that their ‘series data is heavily skewed by the popularity of series romance’. According to Kobo’s customer data, while women are a formidable group, 34% of the most enthusiastic readers are also men over 65.
But what about readers who would rather borrow than buy? Overdrive has reported robust growth in the circulation of digital materials in the past year. Unlike ebook buyers, library patrons have demonstrated a preference for thrillers and literary fiction, relegating romance to third place. Libraries have also managed to engage younger readers and non-English book borrowers through digital book clubs and Overdrive’s global Big Library Read program. The most popular books borrowed in 2016 were A Murder in Time by Julie McElwain (part of the Big Library Read) and The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins.
So, there are many forces at play to challenge notions of a straightforward decline. It’s worth noting that, unlike consumer sales, academic, professional and ELT ebooks sales have all seen healthy growth in the past year. As digital media entrepreneur Richard Nash reminds us ‘there are always little peaks and valleys even within a plateau.’