The book's not finished yet

Man reads e-reader lying in grass near Houses of Parliament

How is the digital revolution affecting the book trade?

If you travel on trains packed with commuters staring at tiny mobile phone screens rather than books, or wander along high streets now devoid of bookshops, you might think it was in a sorry state.

But the Publishers' Association annual statistical digest, published today, seems to paint a different picture.

The industry had a record year for sales, up 4% to £3.3bn. 2012 was the year when the digital revolution really took hold, with sales up 66% to £411m and fiction e-reading growing even faster, up 149%.

As for the physical book, long thought to be under threat from all those Kindles, Kobos and Nooks, reports of its demise may be premature. Sales fell just 1% to £2.9bn, and in some genres, notably children's books, sales actually rose.

The figures also show that the pace at we're switching from physical to digital books varies according to the type of title. Apparently, 26% of fiction sales are digital, whereas for non-fiction books the figure is just 5%, and for children's titles, 3%.

Why? Well perhaps for fiction it is only the words that matter, and they can be rendered as well or better in digital form, whereas for something like a glossy cookery book or an illustrated children's book, the physical object still delivers a much better experience.

Nigella Lawson holding a copy of her 2011 book, Kitchen Nigella Lawson: withstanding the digital threat?

What does this mean then for the pace of publishing's digital revolution and its impact on readers and authors?

A few weeks ago Michael Serbinis of the e-reader maker Kobo told me he reckoned that 90% of reading would eventually be on digital devices.

Start Quote

I've got a Google alert and every day it tells me about a new torrenting site offering free copies of my book”

End Quote JoJo Moyes, author

You won't be surprised to hear that Richard Mollet of the Publishers' Association is betting on a lower figure - somewhere between 30% and 50%. But however rapid the shift to e-readers, publishing seems to be weathering digital climate change better than some other media industries.

But what about authors? I was surprised to hear from JoJo Moyes - a bestselling writer of women's fiction - that nearly half of the sales of her latest book were in a digital format. And each digital sale earns her a few pennies more than the royalty she gets from a physical book sale purchase.

Mind you, not all authors are happy - they point to the much lower costs of producing digital books and wonder how publishers still justify taking such a large cut.

The publishers' response is that they have to spend large sums defending authors from the threat of piracy.

My report for the One O'Clock News

JoJo Moyes has some sympathy with that argument: "I've got a Google alert set up and every day it tells me about a new torrenting site offering free copies of my book. I pass them on to my publisher to deal with. "

Still, neither publishers nor authors seem to have seen their incomes damaged significantly by either piracy or the wider digital revolution. Readers, meanwhile, have a wider choice, and perhaps the prospect of lower prices - although many will grumble that e-books should be a whole lot cheaper.

For bookshops the news is not so good. Independent book stores continue to close, as readers turn to online giants like Amazon for both physical and digital books.

That is making our high streets just a little less interesting, so it's a vicious circle where going out and browsing for books or anything else becomes less attractive than sitting at home and shopping online..

But overall, 2012 seemed to show that the British public still loves books in all their variety, and is prepared to pay to enjoy them.

We hear plenty of doom and gloom from the old media industries about the ravages of the digital revolution - but publishing seems determined to look on the bright side.

Rory Cellan-Jones Article written by Rory Cellan-Jones Rory Cellan-Jones Technology correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    I read loads, e-book & dead tree. E-books on a palmtop rather than a dedicated reader, though. Conversion software widely available for format switching of e-books. What I really want, though, is something handheld to read fornatted PDFs with loads of images... e-book readers fine for text alone but still searching for one that handles properly-laid-out PDFs. Any thoughts?

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    Looks like increased convenience and accessibility has promoted reading more than it has harmed physical book sales. Rampant piracy doesn't seem to have done as much harm as I'd expect either.

    15. Opaque: Which authors keep money in their mouths?

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    Since getting my Kindle Fire HD approximately 8 months ago I've read double the amount of books in that time than I would typically read. I have also been introduced to authors/genres that I would not typically pick up and buy thanks to cheap titles available.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    @Chris Isbell

    That's true about sellers such as Amazon, which lock you in. However there are others such as Kobo who sell you the book with the freedom to do what you want with it. That's why I could never go for the Kindle model as it's too restrictive - you license the book rather than own it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    I love to read and use an ereader avidly. I can carry hundreds of books around with me and not damage a single book. Due to the Classics being free I've been reading a lot more literature with light relief coming from the online library ebooks. I may have to wait a year to read new releases but I have saved hundreds of pounds, expanded my reading and it's all legal. I prefer digital to paper now.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    In the wonderful Blackwell's bookshop at Manchester University I recently saw a fabulous book - for £25. I later bought it on amazon for £10. The challenge facing bookshops is how to square this circle. I love bookshops, but not to the tune of paying 150% more!

    I commute with a kindle too, but I'm reading a paperback where part of the pleasure is the feel of the paper!

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    As an enthusiastic reader I did not like the idea of ebooks but since buying a tablet I now download books free from our library (lots to choose from). Although I still prefer a "real" book ebooks are great for reading in bed as you don't need to put a light on and I can read as long as I like without distrubing my partner! I always have two books on the go now.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    I love books. I have also got two eReaders - my iRiver Story and my Kindle. The Kindle is for personal reading and the iRiver for my work manuals.

    Going on holiday, where I can get through a novel a day, I used to take serious kilograms of paperbacks. Now, I take my Kindle. This allows my wife to take more clothes and shoes! Sigh.

    I also read in the bath. I have a waterproof cover for eReaders.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    You can lend books out, sell it on or give it away to someone or a charity. The book is yours. In that light e-books represent bad value.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    15. Opaque: Libraries do not take money from authors. In fact authors receive money each time their book is loaned out!!

  • Comment number 18.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    I for one like e-books. It has dramatically improved the accessibility of 'the book'. Yes, blockbusters from major authors cost more, but there are vast swathes of books to buy for a few pounds or less. It is easier to carry and hold and you have variety at your fingertips, plus you can 'trial' books to see if you like them. This being said I hope the costs will come down, they aren't justified

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Stil cannot see the attraction of an ebook. A paperback slips into the handbag or pocket just as easily and is a much more pleasurable read. Perhaps we are just getting too lazy to turn the pages, or go to the bookshop. Technology destroys as much as it creates - look at your High Street and see what I mean

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    No mention of libraries and the way that they take money from the mouths of authors? ;)

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Its not just about money, I prefer the experience of reading the printed word. Like cracking the seal on a jar of coffee and getting the aroma opening an unread hard back and settling down to a good read beats a pixel a thousand times over.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.


    True - although what I really meant was that this story is not exactly news from the cutting-edge of technology.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Next month a book I want to buy comes out.

    I can buy it from Amazon for:

    £14.99 - For Kindle
    £15.99 - For first edition hardback

    Does it really cost only £1 less in costs to give me a string of bytes? I doubt it. So for me the ebook is a rip off, and I shall not buy it!

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    You can judge the IQ and class of an Englishman by the ratio between his television screens and his bookcases. The same twits who love texts love e-readers. Bling ones out next year.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    I tend to buy physical books, but then download the ebook version, usually using a torrent site. I see it as the equivalent of ripping a cd to my mp3 player. I prefer using the electronic format, but I still like to have a physical copy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    The main problems with e-Books are that you do not own them and that they are generally locked to a particular vendor so you cannot take them elsewhere. Paper books simply do not have this fatal limitation.


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