« Discussion

There’s a General Global Decline in Book Sales, Why?

By Edward Nawotka, Editor-in-Chief

globe south americaAccording to data presented yesterday at the IfBookThen conference in Milan by David Walter, Research and Development Analyst for Nielsen BookScan, book sales around the world are in general decline. Sales in the US in 2012 were down 9.3%, Spain -10.3%, South Africa -8.8%, Italy -7%…to cite just some examples. Walter noted that sales in the UK fell by 3.4%, data which corresponds with that from Bowker Market Research cited in our feature story today, “UK Book Buyers Spend Less, But Still Loyal to Print.”

The one bright spot around the world was India, where sales were up 16%, but this was “not nearly as large a jump as we had anticipated.”

Certainly in Spain and Italy, you can blame the recession. But the US claims its economy is in recovery. So what’s going on?

In South Korea, where book sales there were down 20% in 2012, the drop was blamed on a simple phenomenon: “Korean’s don’t read books and don’t read newspapers,” wrote The Korea Times.

Earlier this month a New York Times Op-Ed, called out Mexico as “The Country that Stopped Reading” and blamed a failing education system for the lack of commitment to reading.

Clearly, despite the best efforts of the publishing industry to innovate and advance into the digital age, something else is being lost. Could it be something as straightforward as a lack of focus on fostering literacy and a love of books and reading? Or are there larger social and economic changes afoot?

>One thing is for certain, without a stronger dedication to books and reading, society will be all the poorer for it in the long run.

Agree? Disagree? Let us know what you think in the comments.

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  1. Jesse Kroger
    Posted March 21, 2013 at 4:08 am | Permalink

    People are reading less books, because there is an increasing number of alternatives to consume content: reading on tablets and ereader, watching youtube etc. What people read on ereaders and tablets can be books in the classical sense, but can also be content from websites, blogs etc.
    People are not necessarily reading less, they just read in different formats and on new channels.

  2. Posted March 21, 2013 at 4:13 am | Permalink

    Have you got a link to the actual data? It’s hard to postulate why they are seeing a drop if we don’t know how they came to that conclusion. For example, are they counting self-published work? By my estimates, self-publishers have captured around 15% of the US e-book market.

    Alternatively, are these numbers in dollar terms or unit terms? Much of the digital work coming from small publishers and self-publishers is significantly cheaper then the print books it is replacing.

    Both of these possibilities might show a decline in publisher revenue, but not reading (and I care much more about the latter). But I would really need to see the data.

  3. Edward Nawotka
    Posted March 21, 2013 at 4:25 am | Permalink

    @David Gaughran — let me see if I can acquire the slides from the Nielsen presentation and post them. This is revenue, rather than volume. But I did mix the two concepts in the piece, which is here to pose a question.

  4. Posted March 21, 2013 at 4:47 am | Permalink

    @Ed – I think mixing the concepts from the lead and question pieces is where the confusion is. If I am reading the figures right, revenue may be consistently down everywhere, but in some areas the number of books being sold is actually up. I’d also add a caveat to what David has said. These are trade figures presented by the trade, for the trade. Too often self-published data gets lumped into general digital publisher sales or is a chunk of self-published titles are completely ignored. I’d also like to know what exactly the figures are based on, and more to the point, what hasn’t been included.

    Maybe the real question we should be asking is ‘do we place less value on books?’ because I don’t believe we are reading less now, rather the opposite, and reading content from a multitude of different sources.

  5. Posted March 21, 2013 at 5:58 am | Permalink

    Regarding readers who switch to e-books specifically, all the evidence seems to suggest that they read more, not less, after the switch. On top of that, there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence (for whatever value you wish to place on that) to suggest that plenty of ‘lapsed’ readers have been brought back into the fold by the convenience/cost of reading on digital devices.

    What we know less about is whether there is a meaningful percentage of readers that get lost altogether when their local bookstore shuts. I suspect not, and that virtually all of that business goes to another store, or transitions online, or switches to digital – but we need more comprehensive figures to be sure.

    I’m not particularly confident about any data Bowker puts forth with regard to self-publishers. It tends to be based on ISBNs (and sometimes associated Nielsen BookScan data). As we all know by now, a self-publisher could sell a million e-books on Amazon and never register an ISBN, nor register a sale captured by Nielsen.

    Finally, regarding units versus revenue: It might be important for publishers to measure increases or decreases in overall revenue, but it tells us little about how much people are actually reading. As already pointed out, e-books often cost significantly less – especially if they are self-published, or published by a small press or Amazon.

    If unit sales are up and revenue is down, that’s a sign that a greater share of the expanded digital pie is going to those players. It’s a sign that readers of e-books are more price sensitive. It might be troubling to publishers who exclusively price at the higher end of the spectrum, but it’s no proof that people are reading less. It could be taken as proof that those books are over-priced. And it’s certainly not bad news for those with more reasonable prices.

    Having said all of that, the above would certainly apply to the US, and probably to the UK. I’m less confident it’s applicable to other markets.

  6. Edward Nawotka
    Posted March 21, 2013 at 6:10 am | Permalink

    @ Yes, of course. Reading is the key factor and statistical research also suggest that readers are reading more — some 36,000 words a day, the equivalent of 1/3rd of a novel, but this includes email, blogs, etc…not just books (I have lost the source of that data, which I have had for several years and is also likely dated.)

    As for Self-published books — this is trade data and while self-published books are a growing segment of the market, it is important not to overstate their current commercial value in the global scheme of things. The global book business — the global trade, STM and education business is valued at approximately $120 billion a year. So when you look at prices and subsequent sales revenue from a proportional perspetive, a generalized drop in sales in the trade is going to have a far greater financial impact than an explosion in self-publishing.

  7. Posted March 21, 2013 at 6:14 am | Permalink

    I agree with all above, especially that self published books must be included in total books sold/read, and that comparing units vs. revenue is a major distinction.

    I also think it’s worth pointing out that many authors are selling through non-traditional channels now. Both indie and industry published authors have come to recognize that the bulk of marketing is on them, and they are getting much savvier about taking advantage of multiple promotion and selling options. In addition to stores, Amazon, and bn.com, many authors are selling books directly from their own websites or blogs, at readings and signings, speaker engagements and events, and as book club guests, etc. I’m not sure this makes up any significant percentage of total sales, but as the marketplace shifts to a heavy DTR dynamic, I think there may be many sales between authors and readers that Nielsen and industry stats do not track.

    Most agreed is the point that reading and literacy are what matter more than anything else. If whole segments of our population stop or never start reading, God help us all.

  8. Posted March 21, 2013 at 6:15 am | Permalink

    I would add to the excellent comments above that there is strong evidence from the most recent NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) Survey that MORE Americans read than ever before, especially young people (I reported on that here: http://claudenougat.blogspot.it/2011/09/more-american-adults-read-literature.html)

    The only possibility for a drop in book sales would be that more people get their reading done on the web and there is plenty of anecdotal evidence of this. These are however just impressions, not hard data. And since we’re on the subject of impressions, I have the feeling that Generation X is the one that reads books the least, perhaps because they’re the ones who came first to the digital revolution and fell in love with the web rather than the printed page. Boomers have time on their hands, they are getting savvier by the minute with their Kindles and other electronic devices, and I believe they constitute both the largest segment of readers and a growing one. But the youngest ones, in particular American teenagers, if one is to believe the NEA Survey I mentioned above, are the ones who are most likely to increase their book reading…

    But like the others here, I’d like to see the Nielsen data in detail. Thank you.

  9. Aisha
    Posted March 21, 2013 at 6:38 am | Permalink

    From the data presented in the lead article, volume is up and value is down (and it’s sloppy journalism to conflate the two). Perhaps the main difference is pricing? It was pretty hard to get a decent 20p book until very recently…

  10. Edward Nawotka
    Posted March 21, 2013 at 7:04 am | Permalink

    @Dear all, just keep in mind this is a general discussion question, not a full analysis of the stats — something which Nielsen actually charges for…it certainly raises more questions than it answers, which is why it is published as a “related discussion.” Thanks.

  11. Posted March 21, 2013 at 8:37 am | Permalink

    Ebook, print book confusion. India has already given up on print books.

  12. Sandy Thatcher
    Posted March 21, 2013 at 9:39 am | Permalink

    Eventually, as “open access” begins to infiltrate the book publishing world more, sales revenue will cease to be an indicator of reading at all!

  13. Posted March 21, 2013 at 10:26 am | Permalink


    I wish to know if the data compile sales of stm publications under the subscriptions system, mainly of professional journals. Recently Wiley opened an office in Brazil just to sell their publications to public and private universities…

  14. Posted March 22, 2013 at 4:20 am | Permalink

    @Edward Naworka

    You said: “a generalized drop in sales in the trade is going to have a far greater financial impact than an explosion in self-publishing.”

    I think you are greatly underestimating the market share that self-publishing has grabbed in the last couple of years. By my estimates, self-publishers are responsible for 25% of unit sales in the Kindle Store, which itself has *at least* 60% of the overall US e-book market – itself by far the largest digital market for books. If I’m right (and I think I am), that means self-publishers have captured 15% of the largest e-book market in the world.

    Not insignificant. And, in fact, could be one of the primary reasons for that “generalized drop in sales” in trade publishing that you mentioned. You can’t see the link?

  15. Krishna Kant Pandey
    Posted March 23, 2013 at 8:18 am | Permalink

    Growth in India is in Trade books or educational books? I think given growth is because of educational books.

  16. tom
    Posted March 23, 2013 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    Big, big mistake underestimating how huge self -publishing is!

  17. Vikas Malhotra
    Posted March 23, 2013 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    It’s correct that this raises more questions than it answers. While people might be moving to e-books, are they reading the full book online? Am not sure if they are. Online reading is more about small paragraphs or may be a few pages. Yes we read more online, which is mails, anecdotes, short messages et al. But reading a book is just another thing. And the joy of collecting a beautiful hard bound? An I-Pad of course can’t replicate that.

    While its the in thing to read online, will this sustain? Or will the good old paper and print versions make a come back when all the readers would have been there, done that!

    Another big question, from a publisher’s point of view is whether to wait and watch or be happy with lower revenues, which the online versions offer. Or just move on to greener pastures.

    One thing due to this is certain, lower revenues clearly mean that the industry will not be able to afford great talent which definitely is bad news.

  18. Julia
    Posted March 28, 2013 at 2:32 am | Permalink

    An interesting survey done on MIXIT with children in South Africa suggested that children are reading and want access to books, but the majority just cannot afford it. So, I do agree that the data must be analysed in order to give a more clearer picture of whether we are talking about trade figures or actual people that has stopped reading.

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