A year in review: E-book sales fall for all but one of the UK’s biggest publishers

A year in review: E-book sales fall for all but one of the UK’s biggest publishers

It was another year of digital contraction for the UK’s biggest publishers, who experienced a second consecutive year of declining e-book volumes in 2016. Since The Bookseller started charting the performance of five of the UK’s biggest publishers in 2012, there has been a three-year slowing of growth, followed by a like-for-like drop in digital volume in 2015. The trend continued last year, with the five groups combining to shift 45.7 million units, 5.1% down on the previous year.

A few notes here: 2015 data had Harlequin Mills & Boon stripped out from HarperCollins’ (HC) total, as it acquired the romance publisher mid-way through the previous year. Penguin Random House has excluded DK and Andersen Press (as we have done in the TCM-based charts). Year-end digital charts anoraks will have noticed that the recalculated PRH digital sales data dates back to 2013.

HC had the most impressive 12 months, selling nearly 12.6 million e-units, a whopping 18.2% jump on 2015. With 16.5 million print units sold through Nielsen BookScan, 43% of HC’s total unit sales came from digital—the biggest share of any of the five publishers who supplied digital sales to The Bookseller. The lower digital shares of Pan Macmillan and PRH—25.8% and 19.5% respectively—reflect the pair’s success last year in the rather more e-book-resistant non-fiction and children’s sectors.

Determining what these numbers mean for the digital market as a whole is, as always, tough. These five publishers contributed 56% of the TCM volume in 2016; extrapolating that ratio to digital sales equates to a “total” volume of around 81.6 million e-books in 2016. But therein lies the rub: the self-published sector may be anything from 20% to 40% of the overall e-book market. Using the 81.6 million figure, volume sales across both formats in 2016 would tally 276.7 million units, a marginal rise on our 276.2 million estimate in 2015.

We do not have value figures, but with several publishers now fully on the e-book agency model, and print selling prices rising, it appears there was a fairly decent value rise in total in 2016. Yet in pure volume terms, the overall (digital and print) market in 2016 was probably more or less flat.