June 22, 2016
And now, the numbers
by Simon Reichley
Bookstore sales were up more than nine and a half points of 2015 in April, marking the fourth consecutive month of year-over-year gains. Overall, book sales are up 6.8% over 2015, and brick-and-mortar sales are outpacing the rest of the field. This has coincided with a flush of expansion amongst independent and small-chain bookstores across the country, many of whom are experimenting with non-traditional forms of expansion, including co-ownership and co-location arrangements. Bradley Graham, co-owner of Politics & Prose in Washington, D.C. has opened a series of 1,000-square-foot “bookstores” in three local restaurants, expanding the retailer’s presence in the city without taking on the overhead of a long-term lease or the capital investment of a full buildout.
Of course, another large set of data on book sales in 2015 was released at the beginning of the month: Nielsen BookScan’s “Year in Books Review.” The big news here is that e-book sales are leveling off, having hit a four-year low in unit sales in 2015. There is some indication that these numbers are already rebounding, due to a recent drop in pricing, though the positive momentum is largely confined to independent and self-published authors, and follows a more general trend in the market toward indies and away from the Big Five.
Rebound notwithstanding, though, the bigger question here is what’s behind the decline. Jim Milliot at Publishers Weekly posits two general theories. The first falls under the somewhat trendy rubric of “digital fatigue,” and posits that consumers in general are becoming less eager to spend time on their digital devices. This is backed up by data from the Codex Group, in which 25% of readers polled expressed a desire to spend less time in front of screens. This was more pronounced among consumers between eighteen and twenty-five, less so among older ones. According to the analysts at Codex, this preference has a unique effect on the book market, since print books offer a readymade alternative to digital consumption, a “feature” that movies, TV, and (to a lesser extent) music lack. (Note: Jonathan Sturgeon has a good take on the “digital fatigue” theory at Flavorwire, which is well worth reading, and which we won’t summarize here).
Milliot’s other theory (which seems more plausible, or at least more interesting) is that the devices that powered the initial e-book surge—namely, Kindle, Nook, and (don’t laugh) Kobo—haven’t kept pace with the e-book market since their initial deployment, and, on a technical and cultural level, simply aren’t as attractive as they used to be:
Though only 34% of book buyer households own e-book readers, they are still the dominant factor in e-book consumption, having been used for an average of 55% of the total time spent reading the most recent e-book… Dedicated e-reader owners also purchased 59% of e-book units bought by respondents in the month. In contrast, tablets, owned by 66% of book-buying households, were used for only 28% of e-book reading time, while smartphones, with the highest penetration among book buyers (73%), accounted for only 12% of e-book reading time.
As Barnes and Noble retreats from the Nook, and as Amazon seems more and more invested in new domestic technologies like the Echo, Fire TV, and Fire Tablet, the dedicated e-reader is, as a consumer object, being left behind. It’s interesting, though—and invisible in the PW data—that the use of smartphones to read e-books, while still tiny relative to the field, has doubled in the last year, jumping from 7.3% to 14.4% of all digital downloads according to Nielsen’s data. There is unfortunately no demographic data on what kind of monsters are doing all their reading on smartphones. Perhaps that will be included in next year’s round up.
Simon Reichley is the rights and operations manager at Melville House.