March 16, 2017

They know not what they say: Why a Guardian article about young readers’ appetite for print may be misleading


In the Guardian this week, Sian Cain opens an article called “Ebook sales continue to fall as younger generations drive appetite for print” with this assertion:

Readers committed to physical books can give a sigh of relief, as new figures reveal that ebook sales are falling while sales of paper books are growing — and the shift is being driven by younger generations.

Her numbers come from the Nielsen Corporation, whose data are generally read as closely by publishers as by those driving other media. Nielsen found that, while half of all fiction sales last year were of e-books, that proportion shoots to ninety-six percent in the case of children’s fiction. Cain further supports her claim with data from Voxburner about “younger generations preferring physical books to e-readers.” (That research dates from 2013, and considered only those between the ages of sixteen and twenty-four.)

There are some possibilities, though, that Cain does not stop to consider. While it’s true that, as a top-line revenue marker, e-books have declined over the past several years, it is not at all clear that this shift is being driven by innate preferences among younger readers, rather than factors more specific to the particular titles those young readers are buying. Take, for instance, the new Harry Potter book published last year by Scholastic, which Nielsen lists as 2016’s all-around top-seller. If you didn’t get a chance to read it, it was the script of a play, a genre ill-suited for e-books; factor in that many Potterheads probably want their own print copies as collectables, and the fact that this particular title has sold most heavily in print seems less relevant.

In fact, looking at Nielsen’s list of which kids’ books are selling well in print, we find many titles that may be ill-suited suited to electronic reading, from the scrawl-and-sketch-filled Diary of a Wimpy Kid series to the lushly illustrated The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Both are available as e-books, of course, but in both cases it seems likely that consumers are mindful of how much better the content is served by print. These are possibilities that Cain does not address.

Pointing to a 2015 Publishers Association report on the rise in print sales in 2015, Cain goes on to write that this

shift was attributed [by the Guardian’s Mark Sweeney] to the explosion in adult colouring books, as well as a year of high-profile fiction releases, including The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins and Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee. “Readers take a pleasure in a physical book that does not translate well on to digital,” the Publishers Association report read.

Of course, it makes sense that surging sales of adult coloring books would be accompanied by an overall decline in e-book purchases; to quote Reddit user Farceur318, “On a Kindle, you can only do one page of a coloring book and then you have to buy a new Kindle.” It’s possible that the rise in print sales is being driven by titles that don’t work as well as e-books.

More importantly, though, a paragraph that starts by describing something as an “explosion” is probably not a good indicator of longer-term developments. As Andrew Nusca reported in Fortune a year and a half ago, print books are still on the decline as a trend. This doesn’t mean that there won’t be years in which the data seem to say otherwise, but rather that a larger, overall transition from print toward digital remains visible despite them. And an inquiry that excludes consideration of how a given year’s particular titles might work in varying formats is an incomplete one.

If Nielsen wants to offer more meaningful forecasting about how digital books are reshaping the industry, they should also isolate variables for pricing, unit sales by format, outliers, etc. Even in the short time frame Cain considers, publishers have increased and reduced e-book prices on various titles for various reasons. The proliferation of e-book price promotions, principally from Amazon and Bookbub, may be another factor artificially deflating e-sales numbers.

I’m uneasy about this. I worry it will lead publishers, salespeople, and booksellers to form incorrect conclusions about the industry. Print sales are not getting easier. Bookselling is as hard as its ever been, and digital products are not disappearing any time soon. Amazon retains a death-grip on digital bookselling that makes it even harder for competitors with innovative ideas to emerge. There are many who prefer the convenience of e-books, and these readers, too, expect excellent products from publishers.



Peter Clark is a former Melville House sales manager.