New chapter? UK print book sales fall while audiobooks surge 43%

Publishers hit by surprise 5.4% fall in 2018 – but warn against proclaiming terminal decline

UK book sales fell for the first time in five years in 2018, despite the success of bestsellers such as Michelle Obama’s autobiography, Becoming.

The UK publishing industry was hit by a surprise fall of £168m (5.4%) in sales of physical books last year, ending a period of growth stretching back to at least 2014.

Sales fell from £3.11bn in 2017 to £2.95bn last year, according to the latest figures from the Publishers Association, which published its annual yearbook on Wednesday.


Audiobook sales surged 43% to £69m last year, with Amazon’s Audible service dominating sales. However, Stephen Lotinga, the chief executive of the Publishers Association, said this was not the sole reason for the decline in print sales.

“One of the biggest changes has been the increase in audiobook sales,” said Lotinga. “There is some substitution away from print, audio has surged, but there was also always going to be a point where print sales couldn’t continue rising every year.”

Some of the biggest hits last year included Michelle Obama’s Becoming, published in print and as an audiobook, which is on its way to becoming the most successful memoir in modern publishing history.

Other big sellers included Joe Wicks’s The Fat-Loss Plan: 100 Quick and Easy Recipes with Workouts, Michael Wolff’s White House exposé Fire and Fury and John Grisham’s The Rooster Bar.

Lotinga said the rise in the popularity of podcasts, with the music streaming giant Spotify spending up to $500m this year buying podcast companies to tap the boom, was indirectly helping the book market.

“We think that podcasting is helping to drive a resurgence in audio in general, including books,” he said. “Publishers are investing a huge amount in building [recording] studios and securing the services of top quality actors to voice the books. We think the whole audio scene is showing huge opportunity.”

However, he warned against pronouncing the beginning of a terminal decline in physical book sales in the same way the music industry has experienced with the move from CD to streaming in the last decade.

Sales of printed books still accounted for over 80% of the combined print and digital UK book market of £3.6bn last year.

Overall, the digital book market, which as well as audiobooks includes ebook sales and subscriptions to services such as Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited, rose 4.6% to £653m.

“I’m not concerned that this could be a watershed moment for the printed book, we are not there yet,” said Lotinga. “We have not seen a huge shift into subscription services, piracy is low, people still love physical books. It is a trend halt, sales are still up 8% over the last five years.”

Consumer ebook sales continued their slow decline, down 2% to £251m. Sales have fallen 20% since 2014 as rising competition for screen time from services such as Netflix, Facebook and YouTube continues to eat away at the popularity of ebooks and ereaders.

Total sales of UK-published books domestically and overseas, including income from print and digital journals, academic and reference books, rose 2% to £6bn last year.


Mark Sweney

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Pandemic drives ebook and audiobook sales by UK publishers to all-time high
Printed book sales plunge in first six months of 2020 on back of shop and school closures

Mark Sweney Media business correspondent

14, Nov, 2020 @7:00 AM

Article image
Book sales hit record highs in 2019, but publishers ‘now need help’
Figures for last year show sales of £6.3bn, up 20% on 2015, but the Publishers Association says sector needs government support to weather coronavirus

Alison Flood

21, Jul, 2020 @11:01 PM

Article image
Print book sales rise hailed as a sign of a fightback in a digital world
Celebrity titles help sales of physical books break through £75m mark, the strongest weekly performance since Christmas 2009

Zoe Wood

29, Dec, 2012 @12:02 AM

Book trade: One chapter closes
Editorial: The story of Borders encapsulates the good and bad aspects of British publishing and bookselling since the Net Book Agreement ended in 1997


27, Nov, 2009 @12:05 AM

Article image
Kindle ebook sales have overtaken Amazon print, says book seller

For every 100 hardback and paperback books it sells on its UK site, 114 ebooks are downloaded in 'reading renaissance'

Shiv Malik

06, Aug, 2012 @7:10 AM

Article image
Fifty Shades of Grey boosts book trade

EL James's erotic trilogy and Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games novels topped the books charts last year and contributed to an overall rise in digital and print sales for 2012

Alison Flood

01, May, 2013 @6:34 PM

Article image
'Leading the entertainment pack': UK print book sales rise again
Bestsellers including Michelle Obama’s Becoming cited as reasons for success, with industry voices praising sector for fourth consecutive year of growth

Alison Flood

03, Jan, 2019 @2:14 PM

Article image
The fall and rise of physical book sales worldwide – in data
The effects of ebooks on sales of paper books have not been as drastic as expected – it seems that other, more unpredictable factors have a greater influence on how and what we read

Marianna Spring and Cath Levett

18, Mar, 2017 @12:00 PM

Article image
Sales of printed books fall by more than £150m in five years
New figures from Nielsen BookScan show continuing decline since 2009 as more and more readers migrate to ebooks

Alison Flood

13, Jan, 2015 @4:30 PM

Article image
London Book Fair: publishing world struggles to adapt to new lines
The partying goes on at Earl's Court, but new formats and self-publishing are changing the industry

Patrick Barkham

18, Apr, 2012 @6:25 PM