Ebook sales continue to decline in 2016. That may be 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 actually may not be bad news for ebooks and econtent in general. At least for those advocating free reading and free (but sponsored) 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 and libraries to consider (and reconsider) other options. Below full press release.


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.

Overview

  • 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%.

20161115aappressreleasechart

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.