The e-book plateau?

The question (or fear) in the minds of many publishers has been, ‘Will e-books replace paper books?’ Faber chief executive Stephen Page said, “e-books are just another format; I really don’t think they will replace print.” E-books and e-book readers were an innovative and novel addition to the publishing industry and, as a novel technology, saw significant growth between 2008 and 2013, with a massive 305% increase in sales over this time. For this reason there has been much speculation into the future of e-books and their control of market shares. 

According to Digital Book World, digital formats accounted for 16%, £132.5m, of total UK sales in 2013. 2014 saw an increase of 10.5%. Figures released by Nielsen BookInsights in March 2015 show that ebooks now account for nearly half UK fiction sales. These figures indicate the growing success of digital formats, refuting speculations that digital sales have plateaued.

There are several titles that have contributed heavily to e-book sales, evoking considerations that without these titles e-book sales figures would look much different. In 2012 the bestselling final volumes of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy and E L James’ FIfty Shades trilogy were released, prompting enormous sales, with an estimated 50% of publishers’ revenue for ’50 Shades’ and 50% of unit sales for The Hunger Games being due to digital sales.

It would be inaccurate to omit bestselling titles from sales figures as often there are several titles that contribute massively to publishers’ revenue. Young Adult and Romance genres alone are not driving overall digital growth. Digital sales in consumer markets saw an increase of 10% in 2014 to £81m, while sales in the educational/professional markets increased by 11% to £51m. Most notably, there was a 33% increase in digital sales of children’s titles from 2013. 

Nielsen released a market report for 2013 stating that “e-books’ overall share of the book market rose to 25% (up from 20% in 2012)”, indicating that the forecasted plateau of sales didn’t happen.

According to Steve Bohme at the company’s 2015 UK conference that figure rose to 30%, with book buyers increasingly owning digital devices. These figures from Nielsen may differ from those mentioned by Digital Book World as Nielsen decided to group self-published books with traditionally published works. Interestingly, Nielsen estimated self-published books accounted for 20% of all e-books purchased in the UK in 2013.

Looking towards the future, there are several factors that could influence digital sales. Piracy is a growing issue in the educational and professional sectors; little is known as to the extent of revenue lost by the publishers involved or “whether this pirated content is illegally copied digital textbooks or bootleg copies of physical textbooks shared digitally.” A positive influence on e-book sales could be the decline of physical retail outlets where books are purchased. This might result in readers going online to purchase digital formats.

Forecasts concerning e-books have not been very accurate in previous years. The information here highlights ever-growing digital sales figures, but a definitive answer as to future growth or stagnation of e-book or indeed other format sales is unknowable. But as it continues to be a matter of speculation we need to keep developing our understanding of data and markets. 


Michael Kerin is studying for an MA in publishing at Kingston University. The blog is part of a series of pieces written by publishing students