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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  • Comment number 88.

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

  • rate this
    -7

    Comment number 87.

    78.
    Jack Napier

    "people simply don't beleive that artistic stimulation (music, books, films) is worth paying for."

    Writers and musicians should be doing it for the love of the art in the first place, not the money.

  • Comment number 86.

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

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 85.

    Books are more than just reading matter containing wonderful things. They are things of beauty and indeed make lovely displays to adorn any room. I have over 5000 books ranging from old to new and continue to acquire 5-10 a month all of which I read. I particularly enjoy reading the annotations in old books and marvel at the handwriting & quality of comment. It's the same with old letters.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 84.

    The Kindle is great for all the free books available.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 83.

    My husband collects antiquarian books, & I read them. I'm concerned that there won't be any in a few years' time. Reference books absolutely HAVE to be paper, but novels are OK as an e-book... as long as you're happy with it only lasting a few years. I've seen music formats go through vinyl, cassette, mini-disc & CD, but all that time I've still been able to read books printed 300 years ago.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 82.

    @80 I suppose that's one way of putting people off becoming writers.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 81.

    I don't think an ebook hanging off a piece of string in Granny Weatherwax's toilet would be very useful.

  • rate this
    -6

    Comment number 80.

    Storytellers, was a thing done for a free meal an drink. Since reading became universal and printing, with the connivance of private monopoly/copyright, storytellers got self important as authors, and expected to make a lot of money. The tech wheel has turned again. Find a different means of reward, files will be free. If your written file is popular you might sell special rare real copies direct.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 79.

    @ 76.Global Yawning
    What, like a library? Or if I went round a mates house and borrowed it?

    Last I checked libraries paid for books and you had to give them back. I would expect that you would have to give your mate his book back too. What you are doing creates a new copy of the work, not the same thing at all.

  • rate this
    +6

    Comment number 78.

    74.A Hugh-Man
    @ 71.Global Yawning
    2) I'm yet to pay for one thanks to online file sharing.

    I am very sorry to hear that you are cavalier about depriving the author of money for their work.

    ---

    Its the way the world is going, judging by comments on here there are a lot of people who simply don't beleive that artistic stimulation (music, books, films) is worth paying for.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 77.

    I am guessing that those that say that children no longer read are those that do not know any.

  • rate this
    -4

    Comment number 76.

    "74.A Hugh-Man

    I am very sorry to hear that you are cavalier about depriving the author of money for their work."


    What, like a library? Or if I went round a mates house and borrowed it?

    Philistine.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 75.

    Delighted! There is nothing better than opening a new book, having a jolly good read and then handing it in to a charity shop for someone else to read! Long may the paper version last is my view!

  • rate this
    +5

    Comment number 74.

    @ 71.Global Yawning
    2) I'm yet to pay for one thanks to online file sharing.

    I am very sorry to hear that you are cavalier about depriving the author of money for their work.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 73.

    I would just like to say that I absolutely hate Google and Wikipedia.
    Why ?
    Because it enables simpletons who have never read any literature on a subject (and never intend to) to just scoot off in search of any out of context quotes so they can cut and paste it on here and become an expert in just a matter of a few clicks.
    People should be made to provide a source of reference like in A levels

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 72.

    Ha! The big publishers still can't get to grips with this, and they're going the way of the music industry.
    I'm a small publisher, producing real books. We also give away completely free a digital copy from our website. Guess what? We still sold out of the real books. People nearly always prefer the real thing. As far as we're concerned, e-editions are just free advertising for the real books.

  • rate this
    -3

    Comment number 71.

    Two points there are critical for me, and why I swing in favour of the ebook.

    1) Space when travelling
    2) I'm yet to pay for one thanks to online file sharing.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 70.

    @12 You could use the same argument for music: why should it cost so much just for 'a string of bytes'? Ultimately, like music, the majority of the cost of a book is not in the printing, it is the whole publishing process. By your argument a cinema ticket should really cost nothing because you don't get anything physical at all.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 69.

    As long as I am alive there will be demand for paper books.

 

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