With UK Print Book Sales Falling, Can E-books Close the Gap?

In English Language by Roger Tagholm

E-book sales accounted for just 1% of the UK book market in 2010, but are expected to boom in 2011 — growth that might be offset by cheaper prices.

By Roger Tagholm

Steve Bohme

BML Research Director Steve Bohme

British consumers bought fewer books in 2010 than 2008 -– down from 344m to 339m -– and the amount spent fell from £2,341m to £2,183m. E-books accounted for just over 1% of consumer book purchases in Q4 2010, and –- because of the lower average prices -– just below 1% of spending. However, these shares had already more than doubled in the first four weeks of 2011, demonstrating the huge potential of this side of the market.

These were some of the key findings of Book Marketing Limited’s annual Books and Consumers Conference in London on 23 March held, once again, at the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, close to the Houses of Parliament, where gilt-framed portraits of innovators and inventors line the walls, their creations -– steam engines and the like -– as revolutionary in their day as the iPads on which some of the delegates were typing their notes.

BML’s Research Director Steve Bohme, whose themed presentations of the figures have long been a popular part of the UK book business, presented the crucial stats in customary droll fashion. He chose an election theme this year, at one point drawing up an imaginary Cabinet to illustrate how various genres had performed during the year –- thus Churchill represented History and Silvio Berlusconi represented Crime. It raised a smile and the British trade needs that at the moment, with the collapse of Borders, doubts over Waterstone’s size and its future with HMV, and a limping economy that means consumers have less to spend.

But there were glimmers of optimism. Faber Chief Executive Stephen Page, who chaired the event, noted the increased importance of gifting for physical books and believes “the challenge of gift to digital” will be interesting to watch. Various slides showed that very few consumers were buying e-books to give as gifts –- it begs the question how would you? — while the number of physical books given as gifts increased from 32% to 35% over the period.

Although the sales of e-books are tiny in the UK at present, Kelly Gallagher, Vice President Publishing Services of PubTrack Bowker, parent company of BML, observed that in the US e-book sales had enjoyed a “hockey stick” moment, with a steep rise in sales once devices had become prevalent. The suggestion was that this moment in the UK is imminent. The much harder question, of course, is how publishers or retailers will make any money when that happens, since there is still a prevalent culture of free, coupled with low prices. Will the bundling of e-books with physical books help the format survive, especially hardbacks perhaps?

Interestingly, Gallagher used the phrase “digital fatigue” to describe those multi-tasking teenagers and young people who are, in fact, reading all day –- Facebook and Twitter and texts -– but who suffer “a kind of digital fatigue and say they prefer a physical book as a break. They don’t want a reader because they say they don’t want to carry another device”.

But any glance around a carriage on the London Underground shows the huge growth in digital in the UK, with Kindles easily outnumbering Sony Readers. The question remains whether increased e-book sales will compensate for a fall in physical sales. Gallagher noted that Amazon Kindle is way ahead of the competition. “It’s really a fight for the number two position,” he said.  Jo Henry, BML MD, agreed, adding “some people are uncomfortable in the UK because Amazon are already so dominant for physical books, too.”

DISCUSS: What Can Publishers Do to Make E-books Appealing as Gifts?

About the Author

Roger Tagholm


Roger Tagholm is based in London and has been writing about the book industry for more than 20 years. He is the former Deputy Editor of Publishing News and the author of Walking Literary London (New Holland) and Poems NOT on the Underground (Windrush Press).