24 July 2015
In the US, the most technologically mature publishing market – where about 30% of the population owns an eReader – electronic book sales declined by 6% in 2014, according to Nielsen, the pollster. Over the same period, total book sales were up roughly 2%, with the strongest gains reported in the paperback segment.
Similar trends are being witnessed in the UK and Canada, where eBooks have stalled for the past year at 18-20% of market share.
While countries with limited eReader penetration rates are now recording sustained growth in electronic book sales, that’s typically from a low base.
In the Netherlands, for example, eBook sales rose 25% in the second quarter of this year – but still represent just 5.5% of total book sales. In France, home to some 2,500 bookshops, eBook sales are even lower, accounting for about 3% of the market, up from 1.8% in 2012.
Even bricks-and-mortar bookstores no longer appear to be an endangered species: following a steady stream of closures, the number of independent bookstores in the US actually increased by 10% between 2009-13, according to Deloitte.
One reason why eBook sales are flattening comes down to demographics: unlike most new technology, the early adopters of electronic books were not the young. Devices like the Kindle – which allow users to increase font size – are especially popular with a generation that’s more likely to sport bifocals than a tattoo.
Studies also suggest that younger readers dislike the anonymity of eBooks, which lack the unique covers of a printed book. In the US, according to a recent survey, 16-34 year olds are more likely than older generations to buy books that they will never read, and often carry around such titles as symbols of intellectual status.
That’s why, when it comes to forecasting the future of this $30 billion industry, it may make sense to judge a book by its cover.