Book sales hang on as e-books wither

Courtesy of Barnes & Noble College

Remember a few years ago how everyone thought that what happened to CD’s would happen to books, that digital replacements would basically kill those formats?

While that has happened to a large extent in music, (where last year physical CDs generated 32% of industry sales compared to 37% for downloads and 27% for streaming, according to the Recording Industry Association of American), in publishing, print books are holding steady in comparison.

In the first five months of 2015, publishers’ revenues from e-books sales fell 10% to $610.8 million, according to the Association of American Publishers, compared to a 2.3% drop in print book sales in the fiction, non fiction and religious categories (that the industry calls trade books.) Some of that relative decline might be explained by e-book prices that have risen: many people still prefer the tactile pleasure of a physical book and will choose that over a digital book for the same price.

In terms of market share, e-books generated 24.9% of publisher revenues between January and May, down from a peak of 26.5% in the year earlier period, according to the AAP, showing how print books have finally started to push back against e-books’ meteoric rise. In 2009, the year Barnes & Noble (BKS) launched its Nook e-reader to compete with’s (AMZN)) Kindle, e-books generated a mere 3.2% of total trade revenues.

Given this, it has not been surprising to see Barnes & Noble reporting slight gains in comparable sales in its core book selling business after years of declines that had led many to wonder whether the largest remaining bookstore chain might suffer the same fate as Borders, which went out of business four years ago. In its most recent quarter, Barnes & Noble reported comparable sales in its core business rose 1%, while its Nook e-reader and digital content sales fell 22.4%.

On the e-reader front, about 12 million devices industrywide were sold last year, down 40% from the nearly 20 million sold in 2011, according to Forrester Research data.

And print books’ comeback is manifesting itself in another way: more book stores. According to a New York Times article, the American Booksellers Association counted 1,712 member stores in 2,227 locations in 2015, up from 1,410 in 1,660 locations five years ago. And the newspaper reported that major publishers are investing in their printing and distribution capacity: Hachette added 218,000 square feet to a warehouse last year, Simon & Schuster is expanding a New Jersey distribution facility, and Penguin Random House has invested nearly $100 million in expanding and updating its warehouses, according to Times.

“The e-book terror has kind of subsided,” the Times quoted Steve Bercu, co-owner of an Austin bookstore as saying.


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