E-book sales abate for Big Five

For those who predicted the death of the physical book and digital dominating the market by the end of this decade, the print and digital sales figures (see below) from the Big Five for 2015 might force a reassessment.

Somewhat smugly, The Bookseller predicted 2015’s e-book decline in these very pages back in 2013—and endured ire (much of it in digital form, unsurprisingly) at the time. We were attempting to be objective about e-books, acknowledging that they were (and are) an exciting, vital part of the industry—but that they were also just another format, and one that was (and is) in its relative infancy.

But sales have dropped. Or, at the very least, we can without a shadow of a doubt say that e-book volume slid for the Big Five publishers for the first time since the digital age began, collectively down 2.4% to 47.9 million units last year. That 2.4% drop is probably shallower than many observers would have predicted.

Full-market digital data is, of course, at the moment unattainable so it requires calculations to extrapolate what this means for the industry as a whole. The Big Five have a 56% share of 2015’s print volume through Nielsen BookScan. Assuming a broadly similar share in digital—the five probably garner a greater piece of the digital pie compared to other traditional publishers, but self-publishing makes up a decent percentage of e-books— that gives us 85.5 million e-books sold in Britain in 2015. Therefore, a combined “e” and “p” total would equate to 276.2 million units sold in 2015. That is 2.9% up on our 2014 estimate of 268.5 million, with digital representing 30.9% of all volume sales (down from 32.7%).

But the real success last year in the TCM was in terms of value growth.

We do not have e-book value from publishers and e-book pricing was tricky in 2015, as most of the Big Five moved to the agency model at some point in the year. But with agency, we can assume a slight rise in digital book prices year on year. For the sake of calculations, we will use £4.35 as e-books’ total a.s.p.—around a 3% bump on 2014 and broadly consistent with print books’ price rise.

If so, digital books earned around £381.5m in 2015. That would mean an “e” and “p” total of £1.90bn, a 7.1% rise, of which 20.1% was earned through digital. If one considers then BookScan’s high-water mark was the £1.798bn earned in a largely pre-digital 2007, then 2015 was a stonking year... Maybe one of the best ever.

Tom Tivnan is The Bookseller's features and insight editor.