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 48.

    I prefer books, I'm currently reading A History of Christianity by Diarmaid MacCulloch, God's fury, Englands fire by Michael Braddick, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel and Hell by Dante. All in analog format.

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    Its a period of huge change.
    I am hopeful that these new technologies will make it possible for authors to publish without having to give the publishers a huge cut. Just as I'm hopeful the same will happen for musicians and greedy record companies.

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    @42 SnoddersB:

    You are incorrect. Your books are available online. Your Kindle (or other e-reader) can be destroyed in a fire and all you have to do is buy another, sign up to your account and, voilà, all your books are back.

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    @42. E-books you've paid for can be downloaded again for free. E-books you haven't paid for (freebie classics, etc) you can obviously obtain again without paying. My kindle broke and was replaced, and I reinstated my e-books in no time.

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    @29. "It is like shopping at Amazon but free!"
    "The petition, asking the PM to make Amazon pay UK corporation tax, had over 150000 signatures."


    "What goes around,comes around!"

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    @40 Val - on batteries, I find my Kindle happily lasts 8 to 10 hours on a high brightness setting, longer on low brightness, even when I'm using the internet on it. I can easily read a whole book before needing to charge again. Also I have dropped my Kindle a couple of times, no damange. They're hardy things. I think they took some tips from the old Nokia 3310!

    I agree on the smell though.

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    The reason why real books are still selling is because when the E-book machine fails you lose all your books. A real book can only be destroyed by a fire or flooding.

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    I don't want a Kindle, as Amazon won't pay any taxes on the profit they make out of me. And there's an NHS to fund, dontchaknow ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    I don't own an e-reader for three reasons:
    1. E-readers have batteries - I don't want to be halfway through a chapter four and have to stop because they died.
    2. Drop a book and you might dent it or bend a few pages. Drop an E-reader and that's it.
    3. I love the way books smell (it's my secret shame).

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    The cynic in me wants to point out that digital media cannot be given away and then bought for £2 at a second-hand book shop.

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    I have read more books since i had my kindle than i ever did before. why? 1. its light- so i take it everywhere 2. its easy to buy books - i find bookshops daunting and you have to find time to go shopping or order online and wait for delivery. OTOH i cant imagine using it for reference books - becasue you cant flick easily nor do childrens books- full of pictures (plus kids love turning the page)

  • rate this

    Comment number 37. is only the words that matter, and they can be rendered as well or better in digital form...

    Perhaps so. But they are usually not. Lack of proper formatting is the worst thing about my e-reader - probably lazy publishers doing the absolute minimum required to get the digital version out. Page layout is important and more could be done to maintain good layout, even when font size is changed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    I own an e-Reader but prefer real books I do use the e-Reader but rarely there's nothing so sweet as displaying the cover of what you read and by default show off ones intellect in a public place by reading Proust, Camus, Satre, Hesse, Voltaire, etc. and all the other generally inaccessible works that single one out as an highbrow, I do love it! ;-)

    I wonder how many negatives I'll receive?

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    I use my e-reader for stuff I'm not willing to pay full price for. The experience is second-rate; you can't lend it to your mate; finding your favourite bit to re-read is painful; and I keep looking at the progress bar instead of getting emersed in the text.
    OTOH I have finally got some of war + peace read. Now I know why I've never read it before. At least the reader let me find out...

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    Ebooks are great for fiction, but for non-fiction, especially where there are diagrams and photos, readers just can't hack it. Maybe improving formatting arrangements in the software would help. But it's far easier to skip between different sections (say to compare what Pausanias has to say about a certain god's shrines in Athens and Corinth) in print than on screen.

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    I'm a big fan of digital books. It means that when I'm travelling I already have my reading material with me.

    @11 - So as long as I have a big bookcase full of DvDs, and a small monitor to watch them on, I'm good am I? While there is a certain amount of style associated with well stocked bookcase, its more likely the case that the ratio indicates age, rather than IQ. According to you, I'm stupid.

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    I love my Kindle, and it has enabled me to buy books with much greater ease. But for all the convenience of reading on my Kindle, there's a certain something missing. There's nothing like the smell of a new book, each one different; and I love seeing them all neatly arranged on my bookshelf. Plus it's easier to flip back and forth - common when I read non-fiction. The paper book is far from dead.

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    I always preferred printed books to e-books, until I got my Nook. For a while, I carried on reading paper books at home and using the Nook when I travelled, but the advantages of the ereader are small, but many. I now don't buy printed books because of bulkiness, can't read them in the dark, have to go buy them instead of instant download.

    Only exception are books for my little boy, who's 2...

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    I always use my local online library, as you say it's just like Amazon but free and still legal! Kindle ties you in so much and is incompatible with library books. Kobo all the way.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    2 Minutes ago
    Have you checked out the library in your area? In Edinburgh I can download all sorts of books free in addition to the classics. Thrillers, crime, romance etc. etc. It is like shopping at Amazon but free!


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