bookstore bookshelf

UK Book Buyers Spend Less, But Still Loyal to Print

In English Language by Roger Tagholm

As consumers switch from print to digital formats, they also switch from bookshops to e-tailers.

By Roger Tagholm

bookstore bookshelfBritish consumers bought more books in 2012 than in the previous year, but spent less on them, according to Bowker Market Research, who released detailed figures about the UK market at its annual Books & Consumers Conference in London yesterday.

In 2012 British consumers bought 296 million books, compared to 288 million in 2011. Of these, some 11% — around 32.5 million — were ebooks, with consumers spending £125 million ($188.7 million) on this format, more than double the figure for the previous year.

But in terms of value, the overall picture was not so positive. British consumers spent £2.108 billion ($3.182 billion) on books in 2012, compared with £2.137 billion ($3.226 billion) in 2011. This is the fifth year in a row that the amount spent on books has declined, with the 2012 figure being some £245 million ($370 million) less than in 2008. Have publishers’ and booksellers’ costs declined by an equivalent amount in these five years to compensate?

E-Tailers Outsell Physical Bookstores

Source of purchase revealed a new trend according to Bowker. For the first time, 2012 saw more books bought from online-only businesses than from booksellers with bricks-and-mortar stores. While in value terms, there was more spent through physical bookstores than online retailers — and physical bookstores also sold more print books, in both volume and value — in terms of overall volume sales, online businesses outstripped physical stores. The reason is unsurprising: it is due to online stores’ continuing dominance in the ebook market, where the research estimates they have a 95% share. And no prizes for guessing who has the largest chunk of that 95%…our friends from Seattle.

While traditional bricks-and-mortar bookstores can take comfort from the fact that they were well ahead on sales of printed books, the research made the observation that “when consumers start to switch from print to digital formats, they also switch from bookshops to e-tailers for their remaining printed book purchases.”

Readers Not Abandoning Print, Yet

Yet physical bookshops remained the leading source of discovery when it came to browsing, “with nearly twice as many book purchases found by browsing in shops than by browsing online in 2012.” The research also suggests that gifting remains key to printed book sales; ebook sales reached a 12% market share peak in Q3, but dropped to 10% in Q4 when consumers bought proportionately more printed books in the run-up to Christmas.

Paperbacks continue to take a hammering from digital, with their share falling from nearly nine in every ten purchases in this category in 2010, to two in three in 2012.

In genres, fiction — both printed and digital — faired much better than non-fiction, with double-digit growth in value over 2011. Despite ebooks taking a larger than average share of purchases in areas like true crime, travel writing, humor and mind-body-spirit, non-fiction sales declined by 10%.

Not surprisingly, there has been another increase in buying books online, rather than in person. The online share increased from 36% to 42% in 2012, and has doubled since 2008.

Smartphone Purchases Growing

Lastly, devices. There is now a touch of the Consumer Electronics Show about these reports, as the importance of tablets and mobile phones grows in the book industry. There were some surprises here. “While ebooks accounted for a significant proportion of book purchases by those with tablets and dedicated ereaders, the majority of the books bought by these consumers in 2012 were still in printed formats, while the majority of book buyers still didn’t own either a tablet or a dedicated ereader by the end of the year.”

People who are buying ebooks are buying them to read on dedicated readers, rather than multifunction devices, but Bowker said that the ereader share had, in fact, fallen during the year, “and for 2012 overall was significantly lower in adult non-fiction and younger children’s books than for adult fiction and YA books.”

Finally — and it could be a figure to watch as Samsung’s screens grow ever larger — 1 in 20 ebooks purchased in 2012 were bought primarily to read on a smartphone, with 1 in 8 bought to read while commuting.

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

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).