Britons are abandoning the ebook at an alarming rate with sales of consumer titles down almost a fifth last year, as “screen fatigue” helped fuel a five-year high in printed book sales.
Sales of consumer ebooks plunged 17% to £204m last year, the lowest level since 2011 – the year the ebook craze took off as Jeff Bezos’ market-dominating Amazon Kindle took the UK by storm.
It is the second year running that sales of consumer ebooks – the biggest segment of the £538m ebook market, which fell 3% last year – have slumped as commuters, holidaymakers and leisure readers shelve digital editions in favour of good old fashioned print novels.
“I wouldn’t say that the ebook dream is over but people are clearly making decisions on when they want to spend time with their screens,” says Stephen Lotinga, chief exeutive of the Publishers Association, which published its annual yearbook on Thursday.
“There is generally a sense that people are now getting screen tiredness, or fatigue, from so many devices being used, watched or looked at in their week. [Printed] books provide an opportunity to step away from that.”
Sales of consumer ebooks hit a high water mark of £275m in 2014, when they accounted for half of the overall ebook market. The decline in consumer ebooks has been led by a slump in sales of the most popular segment, fiction, which plummeted 16% to £165m last year.
Lotinga says that while there has been an increase in sales of ebooks and subscriptions in non-consumer areas, such as education and academic titles, there are certain types of consumer books people prefer to read in paper format.
Among last year’s biggest sellers were children’s books by JK Rowling (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) and David Walliams (The Midnight Gang, The World’s Worst Children), which helped sales of print and digital kids books to soar 16% to £365m. Diet book guru Joe Wicks (Lean in 15) was also a huge hit.
“The titles that sold really well last year did not lend themselves to digital,” says Lotinga. “People prefer to give, or read, children’s books like Harry Potter titles in print, and healthy cooking titles and biographies sell very well in print compared to ebook format.”
Print sales of consumer book titles – fiction, non-fiction and children’s titles – rose almost 9% last year to £1.55bn. The total UK print book market, including non-consumer areas such as journals, rose 8% to a five-year high of £3bn.
“We saw a very marginal increase in overall print sales in 2015, but last year people flocked back to print in droves,” says Lotinga.
Rise of smartphones
Issues with a slowdown in ereaders being bought, linked to the rise of smartphones, has contributed to the decline in ebook popularity and renewed surge in book sales.
“The ubiquity of larger screen smartphones and tablets appears to have impacted the demand for ereaders,” says Richard Broughton, analyst at Ampere. “However, for many consumers the screens on smartphones and tablets are not as conducive to reading, not as comfortable”.
With most Britons now carrying hi-tech, expensive phones many just don’t want to have the extra cost, and potential headache, of carrying and looking after more devices.
“For consumers travelling or on holiday having an additional ereader device to look after is awkward,” says Broughton. “A physical copy of a book is a disposable low-cost entertainment tool. It doesn’t matter if you leave it in your hotel room, on a train or by the swimming pool.”
The issue with consumer ebooks aside the UK book industry is in fine fettle. Total sales of print and digital books and journals climbed 7% to £4.8bn last year, the largest growth since 2007 when digital sales were first included.
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