E-book sales slip in Q1 2016; audiobooks pick up sustantially

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Threat of the digital revolution on the world of paperback books might be on the retreat as a new report from Association of American Publishers revealed that there has been a marked decline in sales of e-books in the first quarter of 2016 and increase in sales of paperbacks.

The report notes that sales of paperback books as well as audiobooks are up and independent bookstores are thriving again. Jotting down the findings in numbers, sales of paperback books grew 6.1 per cent, downloaded audio by 35.3 per cent while the sales of hardback books declined by 8.5 per cent and sale of e-books were down by 21.8 per cent.

Looking at other numbers highlighted by the report, sales of adult books fell by 10.3 per cent in the first three months of 2016, and children’s books dropped by 2.1 per cent.

Though the numbers look bad, they’re not all that surprising. For many publishers, the first quarter is often the weakest period of the year. Publishers often save their biggest books for the summer, timed for vacation reading, and the fall, for the holiday shopping period.

One thing that does come out starkly is that there has been a decline in revenue for publishers and there are several factors that might have made book sales at the beginning of this year slightly worse than those in the same period last year. Like the movie business, publishing depends heavily on a few outsize hits each season to drive profits. In the early part of this year, there wasn’t a huge, breakout best-seller, certainly nothing like 2015’s The Girl on the Train, which came out in January and sold two million copies in just over four months.

The adult colouring-book fad, which provided a huge boost to publishers and booksellers last year, has started to fizzle, possibly driving down sales this year. (In 2015, some 12 million colouring books were sold in the US, up from one million in 2014.) And the surge in downloadable audiobook sales might account in part for the decline in hardcover and e-books, if more people are listening to books instead of reading them.

But perhaps the biggest factor affecting publishers’ revenue, and one that is not likely to go away soon, is the decline in e-book sales. While publishers once fretted that digital book sales were eroding more profitable categories like hardcover, they now are finding that e-books – which cost next to nothing to produce and zero to ship and which can’t be returned as unsold merchandise by retailers – are critical profit engines. But e-book sales have fallen precipitously for months, in part because many publishers have raised their prices after negotiating with Amazon and gaining the ability to set their own prices.

The decline of digital sales and stabilisation of print may have also led to higher returns of unsold merchandise from booksellers, reducing revenue. And while some book buyers may have traded e-books for print books, others may be buying cheaper, self-published e-books on Amazon.

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