Money & Business

Publishers Association: E-Books Aren't Killing Physical Copies

By / Sep 28, 2015 (James Tarbotton/StockSnap)

Booksellers can breathe a sigh of relief, as a new survey shows e-books have yet to end the printed word.

The past few years have been turbulent for the publishing industry. Fears of e-book sales cannibalizing retail stores proliferated. The prominent chain Borders closed. And bookstore sales declined 4.3 percent year over year in 2014. But a new report from the Association of American Publishers (AAP) comes as good news for those concerned about the balance between sales of e-books and those of the printed variety.

AAP has discovered that sales of e-books are down and sales of paperbacks are on the rise, but booksellers and publishers are keen to understand what that trend means as digital reading options continue to expand.

Fear of a Book-pocalypse

As sales of e-books shot up an astounding 1,260 percent between 2008 and 2010, booksellers struggled to feel confident about their stores and overall business. Analysts said e-books would beat out print sales by this year, as New York Times reporter Alexandra Alter noted, but that hasn’t happened.

According to July AAP figures from 1,200-plus publishers, e-book sales decreased 7.5 percent from the first quarter of 2014 to this year’s first quarter. During that same time, paperback sales rose 8.6 percent.

Beyond the first quarter, AAP reports that e-book sales fell 10 percent through June, accounting for $583 million in revenue for adult, children’s, and young-adult titles. Even so, the e-book industry remains about 85 percent the size of the paperback market.

The Source of a Decline

The recent drop in e-book sales, while comforting to booksellers looking to stave off a digital takeover, nonetheless has the industry scratching its head.

One theory is that prices are to blame. As Talking New Media writer D.B. Hebbard notes, e-books were a less expensive alternative to physical copies during their initial ascent. Now, on prominent digital storefronts like Amazon, their prices are all but identical.

“One can pre-order the Kindle edition for $7.52, or the hardcover for $7.92—which would you choose?” Hebbard writes about upcoming “Fall Blockbuster” Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Old School.

And there may be a link between the decrease in e-book sales and the price increases that resulted from deals that three major publishers (Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins Publishers, and Simon & Schuster) made with Amazon this year; the agreements gave those publishers control over e-book prices.

Regardless of the decline in digital revenues and the pain felt by publishers, booksellers are cheering the latest AAP figures.

“The fact that the digital side of the business has leveled off has worked to our advantage,” Oren Teicher, chief executive of the American Booksellers Association, told the Times‘ Alter. “It’s resulted in a far healthier independent bookstore market today than we have had in a long time.”

Patrick deHahn

Patrick deHahn is a contributor to Associations Now. More »

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