Ebook sales continue to decline in 2016. That’s good news (for those who advocate free reading).

read-876536NSR is not big on sharing statistics and reports on its site, since numbers released in them are often used to promote and encourage the status quo as opposed to encourage publishers (and all who work with books) to transform and go beyond traditional sales and marketing methods; to take the lead as opposed to rely on reports to justify reinforcing old practices. This report, just released by the Association of American Publishers today, in and of itself isn’t all that surprising (or newsworthy), telling us that in the first half of 2016 book sales were down ‘slightly’ when compared to book sales in 2015. We do, however, want to draw  attention to one statistic in this document: that in the first half of 2016 vs. 2015, sales of ebooks were down 20 percent (to 579.5 million).

This is actually GOOD news. At least for those of us advocating free reading and free access to books online, regardless of geography, status, and membership. Why? Because numbers like this do not confirm that people don’t want to read and access content in digital format. Instead, they confirm that they simply do not want to pay for it. Readers are already used to consuming massive amounts of information for free online, and their expectations will gravitate in the direction of ‘free’ even when it comes to books (including fiction and all types of nonfiction).

It may sound odd, but it actually makes sense. If ebook sales continue to decline, it just may be the signal publishers need to consider opening books online for free consumption while still being able to gain from it (by relying on ebook models that support free reading through sponsorship, like Free Reading Zones, instead of opting for business models that require people or ebook services to purchase publishers’ ebooks in advance). Publishing industry has always been reactive to change, rather than proactive in its efforts to transform itself. Seeing ebook sales decline year after year will not make ebooks go away—their power to eliminate unequal (and unbalanced) access to knowledge (in all forms) is too real to be denied—but it may lead publishers to consider (and reconsider) other options. We look forward to that. Below full press release.—Ed.

Washington, DC; Nov. 16, 2016 – Publishers’ revenues (sales to bookstores, wholesalers, direct to consumer, online retailers, etc.) were down 3.4% for the first half of 2016 vs. the same period in 2015. The greatest percentage gains from the first half of the year came from Religious Presses, up 10.4%.

While revenue for Trade Books grew 6.7% in June, the gains were not enough to counter declines from earlier in the year, and the overall category declined 1.1% in the first half of 2016.

“After a tough first quarter — with trade sales down 7.4% from the prior year — second quarter sales have bounced back with 4.6% growth. Sales of adult, children’s and religious books all increased in the second quarter due to a mix of factors including movie tie-ins, a diversity of titles from small and midsize presses, and religious presses recovering from a tough 2015,” said Tom Allen President and CEO of AAP.


  • For the first half of the year, sales in all tracked categories were down 3.4% to $5.37 billion vs. the same six months in 2015. Tracked categories include: Trade – fiction/non-fiction/religious, PreK-12 Instructional Materials, Higher Education Course Materials, Professional Publishing, and University Presses.
    • Publishers’ book sales for June 2016 in all tracked categories were $1.46 billion, down 4.7% from June 2015.
  • In the first half of 2016, compared to the first half of 2015, trade sales were down 1.1% to $3.03 billion:
    • Adult Books had $2.11 billion in sales, down 2.8%
    • Childrens/YA Books had $689.3 million in sales, up 0.9%
    • Religious Presses had $222.4 million in sales, up by 10.4%

Trends for Trade by Format

  • In the first half of 2016 vs. 2015:
    • Paperback books grew 8.8% to $1.01 billion
    • Downloaded audio grew 32.3% to $126.7 million
    • Hardback books grew 0.9% $989.7 million
    • eBooks were down 20.0% to $579.5 million
  • Interesting trends in June:
    • June 2016 had an unusually high percentage of growth in religious presses’ Paperback Books, which are up 54.6% compared to June 2015; the whole category has grown 16.8% over the past half year vs. 2015.
    • June was also a month of incredible growth for downloaded audio, with 51.7% more revenue than June 2015.
    • In June eBooks had their slightest monthly decline in over a year, down only 9.7%.

Below is a chart that shows the market share of various Trade Book formats for the first half of the year from the past six years. Of note, eBooks have around the same percent of market share in 2016 as they did in 2011, while audiobooks doubled their share. The most consistent category has been hardback books, which has ranged from 33.0% to 36.4%.


Educational Materials and Professional Books

  • Educational Materials had a revenue loss of 2.1% for K-12 Instructional Materials and 5.9% for Higher Education Course Materials, in the first half of 2016 vs. 2015.
  • Professional Publishing was down 23.1% in the first half of 2016 vs. the first three months of 2015. These categories include business, medical, law, scientific and technical books. University presses were down 1.7% in the first half of 2016 vs. 2015.


4 thoughts on “Ebook sales continue to decline in 2016. That’s good news (for those who advocate free reading).”

  1. Hi Nathaniel, thanks for your comment. I actually do think that people do not want to pay for digital content. I think we’ve been moving in that direction for many years now. And it’s only a matter of time before books catch on. I look forward to this because I think it will transform publishing for the better (and will not jeopardize the sales of print books). As I mentioned in a reply to another comment, ‘free reading’ does not mean ‘no money for the publisher/author. It means it is available for free to the user (like music is on youtube). People will always want to pay less than more, for anything, and while ‘less’ is good, ‘free’ is better. The difficult part is convincing publishers that it’s also better for them (digitally speaking, of course). Thanks for your comment. Cheers. Mirela Roncevic

  2. Dear Marion,
    Thanks for your thoughtful comment. When I write about free reading, I certainly do not mean to imply that authors/creators/publishers shouldn’t be paid. Free reading does not mean ‘no pay to the creators.’ It means free for the reader.

    In my introduction here, I point to an example of a ‘free reading’ business model (by FREZ; please see link), which pays publishers based on what is read (I believe this to be fair). I think books in digital format should be open the same way other mediums are (e.g., music, news articles), and there is a way to do it through sponsorship (in other words, allow private and government entities to support the spreading of knowledge beyond institutions, bookstores, and libraries). In Free Reading Zones, for example, people are able to access thousands of quality books (by top publishers) because someone else is sponsoring their reading (and this isn’t intrusive advertising like what we have on youtube; not at all).

    As a professional editor/writer with 20 years of experience in publishing, I do not want to see our industry stuck with ebooks anymore, but I do hope to see it transformed. We seem to be stuck because we are afraid that by allowing people to read freely (even while we are getting paid for it through sponsorship), print sales will go down. I don’t believe this to be the case.

    By the way, No Shelf Required is a portal run by volunteers (and it’s been around for over a decade; it was, in fact, one of the first sites dedicated to ebooks back when very few people in the publishing and library field were interested in them). We don’t accept sponsorships of any kind, by publishers or other types of companies catering to them or libraires. We are simply here to voice our opinions on the future of books and to draw attention to the power of the digital medium to democratize the written word (see Mission and About). We do so by keeping up with products and services that, in our mind, do the most to help propel the industry forward.

    Thanks for contributing. Much appreciated. Mirela Roncevic

  3. I agree with Nate Hoffelder. The numbers show that demand curves are real. People are buying expensive stuff, but the more it costs, the fewer of them buy it.

    Let’s face it: fiction publishing has always been the least profitable quarter of the book publishing pie. It was briefly rescued by the shift from mass market to ebooks, but when the ebooks are priced to sustain the type of investment that publishers make into novels, then most readers don’t want to pay that much for most novels. The more novels there are, the fewer readers buy any given novel, including those put out by major houses.

    Those factors are all playing into the decision by major houses to thin their lists, and move away from fiction other than those where the book has blockbuster potential, the author prefers not to (or cannot afford to) risk too much of his or her own money in their books, and investments like those made by a major house will pay off for all concerned.

    But free reading? Yeah, people who have other reasons to write will do stuff like commenting here, and blogging. But the best novelists, and the best writers of book-length stuff will, overwhelmingly, prefer to get paid for their work. And it IS work. Lots and lots of very hard work, especially if you’re going to develop the skills involved in writing even the “worst” of breakout books.

  4. Fixed it for you:

    Because numbers like this do NOT confirm that people don’t want to read and access content in digital format. Instead, they confirm that they simply do not want to pay traditional publishers’ high prices for it. ”

    This report only covers a part of the market, so you can’t really say that people don’t want to pay for ebooks. It is more accurate to say that consumers don’t want to pay the prices charged by these publishers.

    Nate, publisher of The Digital Reader
    (I build websites)

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