Where are we now?

Technological advancement has hurtled forward at an unimaginable rate in the past two decades, bringing consumers and businesses incredible new innovations.
One area of technological expansion is in the publishing industry, through the development of eBooks and eReaders. Almost unheard of before 2009, eBooks have been a revolution in publishing, allowing numerous authors to self-publish and others to become bestsellers and household names before they’ve even appeared in print format. But what are the long-term prospects for this part of the publishing industry?

A time of stabilisation

It was during the long period of economic upheaval that the eBook really caught on with the book-buying public. The market for eReaders grew as consumers learned of the joys of cheap self-published fiction and out-of-copyright classics downloaded for free, and whilst growth has certainly stalled over the last few years the eBook market continues to represent a major chunk of the publishing industry as a whole.
According to Nielsen Book Research, the eBook share of the market rose from one in five of book sales, to one in three between 2012 and 2014, although it had fallen back marginally by the end of the first quarter of 2015.
To put these figures into context, the whole UK book market rose by 4% over the year 2014/5. This was primarily driven by above expected growth in children and young adult titles. Print buying of adult titles remained generally down, with fiction decreasing by 5% and non-fiction by 4%, however it’s in titles aimed at younger readers that one may expect the eBook market to be the main beneficiary.
Overall, as 2015 progressed, consumers largely remained positive about the impact of self-publishing and were willing to try new titles in electronic format more readily than in print. At the start of the year, nearly half of eBook consumers used a Kindle as their eReader of choice, but indications are that those using smart phones or tablets are growing in number.

What chance of retrenchment?

However the signs are that all is not necessarily rosy for the eBook market.
Aside from the growth in sales of print format books to younger readers, data from the Association of American Publishers is beginning to reveal a more worrying drop in sales of eBooks. This is the first time sales have suffered a significant fall since the commencement of the eBook market, though it may be argued that consolidation was always going to happen at some point after the initial growth spurt had peaked.
Indeed, recent print sales were also down indicating market contraction right across the publishing industry, however the rate of decline was much slower than with electronic titles.
There are signs too that this trend is beginning to herald a similar fall in UK eBook buying. At Christmas 2014, the national book retailer Waterstones reported that sales of the Amazon Kindle had all but disappeared, whilst print books were enjoying something of a surge in popularity.
Whilst it may be that those buying eReaders prefer to shop online, there’s evidence that the product is becoming much more of a niche market with most of those likely to buy eBooks now already owning eReaders. However there is also plenty of evidence that eBooks are unlikely to replace the printed word anytime soon, with hardened readers preferring the reassuring touch of a paperback and the opportunity to browse before purchase or exchange at a secondhand bookshop for some other dog-eared treasure.

A brighter future for the eBook?

Beyond the raw sales statistics though, it’s clear that not everything is negative for the eBook; eReader sales may be falling but this is to ignore the massive growth in tablet use over recent years; such devices are not bought primarily as eReaders but products such as Apple’s iBooks platform are growing rapidly and allowing the consumption of eBooks to continue irrespective of a decline in eReader sales.
So with consumers increasingly having the means to read eBooks with software pre-installed on their tablets there are still plenty of opportunities for future growth in the sector, particularly for new authors and more specialist titles.
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