At the start of this decade publishers feared the death of the paperback. Britons abandoned bookshops at an alarming rate, seduced by e-readers and cheap digital books.
Even Jeff Bezos, the Amazon founder, was shocked by the speed of readers’ defection when Kindle downloads outsold hard copies on the website for the first time in 2011. “We had high hopes this would happen eventually, but we never imagined it would happen this quickly,” he said at the time.
But the ebook story has turned out to have a twist in the tale. Sales of physical books increased 4% in the UK last year while ebook sales shrank by the same amount. Glance around a busy train carriage and those passengers who aren’t on their phones are far more likely to have a paperback than a Kindle.
The e-reader itself has also turned out to have the shelf life of a two-star murder mystery. Smartphones and tablets last year overtook dedicated reading devices to become the most popular way to read an ebook, according to the research group Nielsen.
Michael Tamblyn, chief executive of Kobo, which makes e-readers and sells ebooks, including for WH Smith and Waterstones, reckons the decline is simply down to pricing. “We have seen ebook prices rise from traditional publishers and that does pull people away from digital and back to print.”
“Traditional publishers are setting the prices, which limits our ability as a retailer to discount or run price promotions,” he said. “One of the things that attracts people to ebooks is their affordability and people’s ability to take that pound they have for reading and stretch it further. Previously a book that a publisher would have published at £10.99 we could have sold for £7.99. What we like to see is a nice healthy distance between a print book and an ebook. It’s usually still the case but often isn’t as wide as we would like it to be.”
The average price paid for an ebook increased 7% to £4.15 in 2016, while the price of a hard copy increased 3% to £7.42.
The shift in ebook pricing reflects a change in the contractual terms agreed between Amazon, which controls up to 90% of the UK ebook market, and the major publishing houses. As a result it is now sometimes cheaper to buy the physical copy of a new title on Amazon than the Kindle download. Of the 16 books on the longlist for the Baileys women’s prize for fiction seven are either cheaper in print form or roughly the same price.
Another reason why digital book sales declined last year is because cookery and humour are simply better in print – and last year’s bestseller lists were populated by books by the fitness guru Joe Wicks, the Ladybird Books for Grown-ups series and Enid Blyton parodies.
“When we first started the business there was an expectation we would see 50% print/digital within five years [from 2012],” said Tamblyn. “Instead the ebook market has been plateauing in the 25-30% range.”
Ebooks perform best, he said, with “blockbuster fiction bestsellers and young adult crossover books like Hunger Games and Insurgent”.
The UK reached peak e-reader in 2014, when a quarter of UK book buyers owned one. Three years on that figure is back to only just over one-fifth as Britons have swapped their e-reading on to phones and tablets. Waterstones stopped selling the Kindle two years ago because they were “getting virtually no sales”.
Despite the digital market’s rapid wax and wane, the industry does not expect e-readers to join MP3 and MiniDisc players in the tech dustbin. The devices, said Tamblyn, were still prized by prolific readers – a group that is predominantly female and over 45, and devours romance and crime novels.
Douglas McCabe, a media expert at the research firm Enders, reckons e-readers will continue to fall out of favour but that older readers would remain fans, not least because of the appeal of being able to “make the font bigger”.
The revival of print means the publishing industry is no longer being consumed by the battle between the two channels. “The real focus for the industry as a whole is how we preserve time for reading,” said Tamblyn.
“People are more than willing to sit down for five hours and watch six episodes of The Walking Dead. We are in a digital arena fighting for that same customer as Netflix or Facebook. For all of us the fight really is around attention and our ability to bring it back to reading.”