International print sales retreat—but US e-books 'slowing'

International print sales retreat—but US e-books 'slowing'

Print sales are in retreat in almost all markets across the world tracked by Nielsen BookScan, with the drop in fiction sales particularly pronounced in markets, such as the UK and US, where e-book sales are growing quickly.

But in the US publishers are facing a potential double blow, with anecdotal evidence suggesting that the growth in e-book sales has also slowed over the past few months, as e-reader adoption has dragged and resistance to e-reading has grown. Publishers were also warned to beware of Amazon's growth.

The global sales figures were given out by president of Nielsen Book Jonathan Nowell at the Italian e-book event IfBookThen this morning (2nd February). Nowell highlighted sales declines in markets such as US, UK and Spain, with Italy the one exception where fiction sales were still growing. 

He said the decline in sales in the US had doubled over two years, with fiction showing the clearest decline, down 7.2% in 2010 and in 2011 down 18%. In the UK the print decline accelerated in 2011, while in the first four weeks of 2012 print sales have dropped 12%, with fiction sales down almost 26%. But not all of the drop was attributed to e-book conversion, with Irish print sales also down, despite there being no significant impact from e-books.

Digital consultant and head of The Idea Logical Company Mike Shatzkin said e-book sales had doubled or more for four straight years, from 2007 to 2010, but recently there was evidence that the growth was slowing down, with Shatzkin pointing to research that suggested the resistance to e-readers in some people's minds was growing. He added that the initial growth was fuelled by heavy readers who moved across to e-reading first, with more reluctant adopters slower to change and likely to read less. 

"The people who read the most, switch first—they punch above their weight, but once you get passed the early adopters, you get slower adoption and not as much growth from these readers." He also conceded that e-book sales tended to look artificially high at the beginning of the year as device sales accelerated over Christmas and publishers' sales were depressed by returns, adding that at the end of the year, the opposite happened as more print books were shipped into shops.

Shatzkin also used the opportunity to warn publishers to try and check Amazon's growth. He said the most important question publishers should be asking is what percentage of their business is with Amazon, as it "determines how difficult your life is going to be". He estimated that among the big publishers, Amazon would have a market share of about 30% but that this was growing. "When that number gets to 50% it is going to get really nasty, and I don't see how that can be avoided." But he recommended that publishers needed to figure out how to grow their non-Amazon revenue, faster than they are growing the Amazon side.

The theme was picked up by Spanish technology consultant and economist Javier Celaya who said that to compete with the big players—Google, Amazon, Apple—publishers also need to think big and international. "We must create a European platform to answer back to these global players—not just books, but with music and video, too."