Up, up and away?

It may not have quite the same resonance as William Goldman’s infamous line about the movie business—“nobody knows anything”—but Carolyn Reidy’s comment, made at a recent Book Industry Study Group meeting held in New York, that “the more we know, the more we have to learn” is an excellent reminder that, as the redoubtable chief executive of Simon & Schuster Inc also noted, publishing has its own “peculiar logic”.

The relative trajectories of the print and e-book markets form one such area of murk and contradiction. As The Bookseller’s Lead Story shows, there is a belief (and relief) now among some booksellers that the e-book “threat” is over. I have heard similar talk from senior buyers at supermarkets, who tell me that they have seen e-reader buyers switching back to print books. According to the Kantar World Panel, which polls consumers, fewer individuals are now buying e-books this year, when compared to 2014. Waterstones m.d. James Daunt believes e-book sales have reached their natural level; independent bookseller Ron Johns says that the market has “evaporated”. The New York Times this week ran a piece titled: “The Plot Twist: E-Book Sales Slip, and Print is Far from Dead.” And e-book subscription company Oyster announced it intended to “sunset” its business, with its executives decamping to Google.

Five years ago, the e-book was set fare to crush everything before it. The narrative has now reversed itself. Yet if I felt troubled by the earlier view, the new talk worries me even more. Reidy’s rejoinder is key: we do not know enough to be so definitive in our analysis, and what we do know does not tell one story.

There are numerous factors affecting the e-book market, most of which won’t fit neatly into a headline, and some of which will impact different parts of the business at different times. The shift to agency pricing (in some cases, publishers have priced their e-books higher than the price Amazon charges for the print versions); the rise in sales of indie-authored, low-priced e-books; device fatigue and a slow renewals cycle; a lack of good competition to Amazon; adoption rates decreasing; reading time diminishing; and output reaching saturation point. By contrast, colouring-in, a strong fiction release programme, and a more confident high street are making print bob-up with the Nielsen TCM rising 4.6% in 2015.

The relief felt by booksellers is understandable: they have been unable to enjoy the e-book bounty banked by publishers and consultants. But digital is now as big a part of this industry as print—and for some authors and publishers it is the only business they are in. If two distinct markets are now developing, we would do well to acknowledge that both are important, and important to each other. This we know.