The BBC have today reported the words of Tim Waterstone, the founder of the Waterstones chain of bookshops.
“E-books have developed a share of the market, of course they have”, he is quoted as saying, “But every indication – certainly from America – shows the share is already in decline. The indications are that it will do exactly the same in the UK.”
So is he right? On the facts of it, he appears to be correct – e-book sales are indeed declining, and having gone down 5% year-on-year. Similarly the BBC report linked to some UK figures which also confirmed a decline… but failed to point out that the same article also reported that hardback and paperback novel sales were falling too. Hmm.
So assuming there is a decline (which it does appear is correct), what could be the reason for this? Here’s some speculation on contributing factors:
The end of the digital transition
Now e-books and e-readers have been around for a few years, it is perhaps natural to expect sales to tail off now that most people who want a Kindle probably own one.
It’s similar to how at the moment sales of TVs are falling. The last few years have been all about pushing people towards HD – but now HD TVs are ubiquitous, no one feels the need to upgrade quite so urgently (until 4K becomes a reality, in any case).
Chances are that when you first pick up a Kindle you splash out on a larger number of books – downloading a bunch of new titles and all of those books you loved reading when you were younger, so you can revisit them and carry them around with you. Now the ebook market has matured, you probably only buy a new book whenever you finish the previous one.
No “blockbuster” books recently
Where is this year’s Harry Potter? Or 50 Shades of Grey? There’s no huge blockbuster of a book to drive sales – the sorts of titles that might usually entice non-regular readers into trying out an ebook.
Tablets are replacing Kindles – more distractions
Here’s my own pet theory – and it is to do with tablets. Now tablets are ubiquitous, compared to a few years ago when it was iPad or nothing. As more people have bought them, less have gone for the standalone greyscale Kindle, meaning that the devices they can read on can also do millions of different things.
I know from personal experience it is hard to read a book when constantly receiving notifications from Twitter, Facebook and so on… and how tempting it is to lie in bed watching YouTube instead of reading a clever book. If everyone else is like me and reading less… then maybe we’re all buying less too?
Prices going down
Have you seen the price of ebooks? Books used to be something that were fairly valuable – but now the distribution costs are essentially zero it has led to ebook sellers cutting prices dramatically. Though new titles are often still priced similarly to paper equivalents, it seems as though every day Amazon have a new sale or special offer – with fairly new books being reduced to less than a pound.
I wonder if people are still buying as many books, but the overall profits and turnover from ebook sales – the things that are used to measure these things – are falling because people are spending a less? It’d be very easy to survive on a literary diet of whatever Amazon have for 99p this week.
So is Tim Waterstone correct? Possibly – but I’m just left wondering why his comments are newsworthy or surprising. He’s the founder of a major brick & mortar book retailer, which has 275 branches around the country – of course he doesn’t want e-books to seem popular as that would destroy his business! He’s perhaps the least objective person it is possible to find for comment.
By James O'Malley | March 31st, 2014